Film classics: Tommy – the rock opera that will blow your mind
The genre of rock-opera is practically defined by Tommy by The Who – their 1969 concept album that Ken Russell adapted for film in 1975.
Tommy is the kind of cultural touch-point that you probably feel as if you know, even if you’re not sure if you’ve seen it. An opportunity to experience it on the big screen is not to be missed.
An ambitious project from the beginning, what’s perhaps most surprising about Tommy is that it works – the story, the music, the drama. It’s all so over-the-top and spectacular that it’s a visual and aural feast from start to finish.
The story of Tommy was initially developed by Pete Townshend – guitarist with The Who – and then fleshed out a bit by Ken Russell to give it a bit more of a filmic narrative.
Tommy is a boy who witnesses a violent act that leaves him in shock – he appears to lose the ability to hear, see or speak. An encounter with a pinball machine seems to re-awaken his senses and he soon becomes a ‘pinball wizard’ who embarks on a messianic quest to change the world.
For the film, Russell has assembled the most incredible cast. Tommy is played by Roger Daltrey – lead singer of The Who, the mother is played by Ann-Margret, and the step-father is played by Oliver Reed. There’s cameos from Jack Nicholson, Eric Clapton, and Keith Moon. There’s a totally scene-stealing appearance from Tina Turner as The Acid Queen, and Elton John delivers the iconic track Pinball Wizard.
The performance of Ann-Margret – as Tommy’s mother – is jaw-droppingly good. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for the role. It’s a performance in which she gives absolutely everything in every moment that she’s on camera. It’s Ann-Margret that really makes this whole thing next-level.
From a queer perspective, there’s an odd association between a paedophile uncle who’s seen reading a copy of Gay News. Gay News was a serious publication – published fortnightly it was an important voice for the queer community, advocating for equality. It feels uncomfortable to see it equated with paedophilia, but I guess we have to accept that 1975 was a different era in many respects.
If you feel like embracing your inner rock god, pinball wizard, or the Ann-Margret school of acting, make an effort to see Tommy on the big screen.