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TOMMY(director/writer: Ken Russell; screenwriters: inspired by the rock opera by Pete Townshend/additional music by by John Entwhistle & Keith Moon; cinematographers: Dick Bush/Ronnie Taylor; editor: Stuart Baird; music: Pete Townshend; cast: Ann-Margret (Nora Walker), Oliver Reed (Frank Hobbs), Roger Daltrey (Tommy), Elton John (Pinball Wizard), Eric Clapton (Preacher), Keith Moon (Uncle Ernie), Jack Nicholson (Specialist), Robert Powell (Group-Capt. Walker), Paul Nicholas (Cousin Kevin), Tina Turner (Acid Queen); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Robert Sligwood/Ken Russell; Columbia Pictures; 1975-UK)
“It becomes tiresome and runs out of gas way before the conclusion.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ken Russell (“The Devils”/”The Music Lovers”/”The Savage Messiah”) puts to film the first ever rock opera based on The Who’s 1969 hit album. The overblown musical is in the right hands of the director known for his excesses; Russell has a field day running with the called for maddening images and an overloud score to capture the simplistic messages (for one, calling attention to the hypocrisy of organized religion) in his gaudy spectacular version. He’s most faithful to the original material but surprisingly this is one of his least interesting films. Though inventive, energetic and a visual feast, it becomes tiresome and runs out of gas way before the conclusion. At best, it’s only mildly interesting in spots.

The rock opera itself is an absurd tale about a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” named Tommy (Roger Daltrey) whose father, RAF Captain Walker during WWII, is killed during a bombing mission. After her husband’s death Nora (Ann-Margret) gives birth to Tommy and raises him as a single mother. Nora takes up with her cousin Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed), who runs a holiday camp. Tommy accidentally sees mom making it with his stepfather and freaks out, leaving him as a zombie. Though nothing is physically wrong with the kid as determined by a medical specialist (Jack Nicholson), nevertheless Tommy is called an incurable psychosomatic. Frank buys a striptease joint and the parents live it up not paying attention to the kid, who when entrusted to cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas) is abused and given drugs. Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon, deceased drummer for The Who) as the perverted babysitter subjects the kid to pederasty. But Tommy finds inner strength guided by his wholesome father’s spirit and develops an unsurpassed talent for playing a mean pinball game. The kid gains instant celebrity when he defeats the Pinball Wizard (Elton John) for the world championship and becomes a millionaire. This leads his parents to great wealth as they reunite with their lost son and for Tommy to miraculously regain his faculties. Wanting to share his happiness with the world, he becomes a messianic figure and founds a religious cult much like the one for Jesus (his cult uses for a symbol the letter T and a ball on top). Tommy then has to wrestle with his faith-based group coming too commercial (they sell T-shirts, record albums, and religious artifacts) and of him not being viewed as phony.

The few good scenes included Ann-Margret erotically writhing on a floor filled with baked beans, Elton John’s lively rendition of “Pinball Wizard” with him wearing skyscraper shoes, Eric Clapton preaching about the power of healing in front of a shrine to St. Marilyn Monroe, Daltrey’s centerpiece rendition of “See Me, Feel Me” and Tina Turner doing her exotic best as the seductive hooker belting out “Acid Queen.” Other than that, the music was not as good as the album and the social commentary couldn’t be more shallow or half-heartedly delivered. The film’s biggest mistake was in Daltrey’s lead characterization, as he vacuously played dumb but never convincingly. The result is a pop culture film of great visual splendor that brings back memories of that rock era, but not all the memories are pleasant.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”