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UK 1976
Directed by
Ken Russell
111 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars


There are really two sensibilities at work in this film. One is that of Pete Townshend, author of the original "rock opera" that gives the film its name, the other is director Ken Russell's.  Both in their way are excessive and together they manage to create an ungodly mess that in its day may have hit the right buttons but now looks and sounds like unrelieved visual and aural cacophony. 

The main problem, and this is more Russell’s doing than Townshend’s is the absence of a compelling narrative with well-motivated characters.  With no libretto and the story told entirely as a series of songs Russell's film is a patchwork telling of how young Tommy was traumatized as child by witnessing the murder of his father (Robert Powell) by his mother (Ann-Margret) and stepfather (Oliver Reed). The shock leaves him unable to speak, see, or hear but he eventually grows up to be a pinball wizard and pop messiah (played by Roger Daltrey who spends half the movie mute and staring at the camera like a dolt).

The story unfolds as a series of set pieces staged with characteristically exuberant excess by Russell. Sometimes this works wonderfully as in “Pin Ball Wizard” with Elton John decked out as bovver boy in giant boots (Rod Stewart had played the part in the original stage production) but Ann-Margret writhing around in what one hopes is a wallow of chocolate astraddle a giant bolster is typical of Russell at his most tasteless.  Equally, although some of the songs such as “Acid Queen”, “Eyesight for the Blind” etc are memorable, many are not (some of the songs were written for the film and were not on the original album), even less so as their re-recording here has deprived them of their typical Townshend guitar-driven immediacy. Ann-Margret is the stand-out performer and sings surprisingly well but Reed, if as always watchable, is apparently tone deaf.

Townshend had serious musical and philosophical ambitions with his work but none of this is discernible under Russell’s direction, the sketchy story jerking along in a perfunctory fashion whilst the raucously undistinguished soundtrack borders on the painful.

Understandably, the film has cult/curio status. "Tommy" is an iconic album in rock history, Russell’s reputation for excess is well-justified and cameo performances from Eric Clapton, Elton John, Tina Turner, Jack Nicholson and, of course, The Who themselves add to the fun (one of the star performers, Paul Nicholas, who plays sadistic Cousin Kevin, had a Top 40 hit in the U.S. with "Heaven on the 7th Floor" at the time but was never heard of again).  As a musical, however, forget it.

DVD Extras: The disc features some excellent interviews, in particular an epic chat with Pete Townsend about his career, the making of the film and his controversial life. Roger Daltrey also lends his opinions and there are two Blue Underground produced featurette's on Ken Russell and Ann Margaret. All in all they total 105 minutes and tell the viewer all they could possibly want to know about the film. Russell also provides a wonderful running commentary interviewed by film scholar Mark Kermode. You also get the trailer and don't forget that the film has been remixed into its original Sansui Quintophonic Mix. Townsend seems to have indirectly invented 5.1 Surround in 1976!

Available from: Umbrella Entertainment




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