Witnessing his father’s murder by his mother and her lover, a young Tommy becomes psychosomatically deaf, dumb and mute. As an adult, he discovers his talent for the game of pinball and becomes the Pinball Champion. Cured of his condition, Tommy then becomes a messiah for many people, eventually resulting in a revolt and loss.
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“We came here to be like you and find the world you reached!”
Sex, war, death and loss. And that’s only the first fifteen minutes. Ken Russell’s Tommy is a trippy, bizarre rock opera based on the story and album by Pete Townshend of famous rock band The Who. Featuring music from The Who, the film tells the story of Nora Walker (the sensational Ann-Margret), who loses her husband in World War II and is forced to take care of herself and her young son Tommy. After finding a new lover (Oliver Reed), her husband returns and is killed by the lover in a violent fight. Tommy witnesses this murder and is told, “You didn't hear it, you didn't see it! You won't say nothin' to no one!” And he doesn’t – ever. Traumatized, he becomes deaf, dumb and mute; living in his head into adulthood.
Tommy (played by Roger Daltrey, founder of The Who), creates a life inside his mind with the images displayed on screen never explicitly explained to be subjective or the audience’s perspective. But one thing is clear: this is a strange brew of characters, locations and experiences. To cure his condition, Tommy’s parents take him to various ‘healers’: the Acid Queen (Tina Turner) who induces a grin from Tommy but not much else. The Preacher (Eric Clapton) preaches but unfortunately doesn’t reach Tommy. And The Specialist (Jack Nicholson) is more concerned with getting into Nora’s pants instead of Tommy’s head. Tommy’s cousin (Paul Nicholas) is disturbingly violent singing, “Maybe a cigarette burn on your arm / Will change your expression to one of alarm.” And Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon) is no better, singing “I’m your wicked Uncle Ernie/I'm glad you won't see or hear me, /As I fiddle about, fiddle about, fiddle about.”
While sanity seems to be lacking within characters, serenity is found in Tommy’s eyes; his mind protecting him from the greed, guilt and torment all around him. Discovering a pinball machine, he escapes into the game, eventually beating the reigning champion (Elton John) in a psychedelic showdown. Gaining the adoration of a large following, Tommy becomes popular. But it’s not until his mother has a breakdown and pushes him out of a window and into the water below does Tommy cure himself of his condition. Rising from the baptismal waters he exclaims: “I'm free, I'm free! And freedom tastes of reality!” He then becomes a ‘messiah’ for the masses. When the crowd changes their mind, he loses them, his parents and the labels.
The acting in the film slides from subtle to over-the-top. Nora quietly grieves for her dead husband, and then throws dramatic tantrums to get her son to talk. Her progression from devoted wife to fame-seeking maniac to pious follower is quite remarkable. Her performance when she breaks down and writhes in a room filled with champagne and canned beans (yes, really) got her an Oscar nom and remains one of the most memorable scenes in the film. The characters that go in and out of Tommy’s life are a mix of grotesque, fantastic and hilarious. One is never sure if these characters are skewed through Tommy’s perception or are brutal statements about the reality of people. Probably both.
Music in this film is the only means of communicating verbally as there is no spoken dialogue between songs. Song after song is used to convey messages and feelings about devotion, loss, escapism, and freedom. The lyrics and music take the audience through an array of visual experiences. Guitar solos, synthesizers and pulsating drums give the film an energy and excitement.
Tommy is a twisted take on a young boy’s trauma; creating visuals that entertain and disturb. Commenting on 70’s pop culture and social problems, the film uses the music of The Who to artfully tell a story of loss, redemption and change, eventually leaving the audience with a sense of hope. Intensely visual, sometimes campy and packed with songs, Tommy is a rock musical that induces ecstatic delight in some and a need for detox in others. It is however, incredibly entertaining.