Friday, October 19, 2012

Rocktober: 'Tommy' (1975)

Subject matter that sounds epic and emotionally resonant in a song can come off as ridiculous and comical when depicted literally, and much of the problem with Tommy, Ken Russell's movie version of The Who's 1969 rock opera, is that the actual characters and story of Pete Townshend's songs are totally silly. There's some very personal material in Townshend's story of a traumatized boy who grows up into a deaf, dumb and blind pinball champion and later a messiah, but its realization on film is a mess of bad performances (both musical and dramatic), absurd plot twists and general surrealist excess. Some of the more bizarre set pieces are striking in their grotesquerie, and of course much of the music is very good.

It's not, however, nearly as good when sung by the actors in the movie as it is when performed by The Who themselves. Frontman Roger Daltrey plays the title character, so he does get to sing a few of the numbers himself, but since Tommy spends much of the movie unable to speak, the majority of Daltrey's performance involves staring blankly into the middle distance and trying to evoke trauma. Unfortunately Daltrey completely fails at this task, and instead conveys what looks like mild mental retardation.

Once Tommy recovers and Daltrey is able to finally draw on his rock-star charisma, his performance finally warrants the attention it gets, but until then Ann-Margret (as Tommy's mother) and Oliver Reed (as his nasty stepfather) have to carry things, and they're not quite up to the task. Ann-Margret was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, but she's a little too delicate to play the volatile woman who traumatizes Tommy so thoroughly. And Reed, while effective as the unctuous stepfather, is such a terrible singer that every time he opened his mouth I couldn't wait for a different character to take up the vocals.

That's the other thing about Tommy: It's a true opera, in that there's no spoken dialogue, only singing. Again, on record this approach makes sense, and the songs don't need transitions between scenes or coherent plotting. Russell takes a surreal approach to much of the filmmaking, but the movie is still straightforward enough that the plot has to move coherently from one event to the next, and the songs just don't provide enough connective tissue. As an album or a live concert experience, Tommy is no doubt powerful, but as a movie it's sort of a disaster.

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