When Russell did the Who's Tommy he suddenly had a major commercial success on his hands. Disappointingly is was followed up by a cash-in movie, and box-office failure of Valentino removed his commercial tag.
Pete Townsend's rock opera, with some of the scenes shifted to makes some sense of the plot. Ken directed Tommy in 1975. The film is a series of visual images. In the church Marilyn Monroe replaces the Virgin Mary. Under her statue blondes in Monroe masks give the sacrament of whisky and pills.
The story concerns a child who witnesses his father being murdered by his mother and lover. His mother (who works in a ball-bearing factory) tells him not to tell what he saw or heard, so he becomes deaf, dumb and blind. He does have one gift, he can play pinball. The pinballs are identical to the ball-bearings from his mother's factory, and to the device later put in his eyes at the instigation of the doctor, Jack Nicholson. Tommy becomes a messiah figure to his followers until they realise they also have to become deaf, dumb and blind.
The film is based around an LP. It was becoming fashionable to produce theme LPs and Pete Townsend surpassed most by coming up with a story line (even if it at times does not fit). The story is inspired by the blues song Eyesight for the Blind by Sonny Boy Williamson, with the most famous song Pinball Wizard added to ensure there was a hit single.
But she turns out to be a fallen idol.
Tommy rejects this religion, and Tina Turner's attempt to awaken his senses with sex and drugs also fails. "If your child ain't all he should be now, this girl will put him right. I'll show him what he could be now, just give me one more night". Tommy emerges and becomes the new messiah with a mass following. His parents exploit this.
The famous scene of Ann-Margret writhing in a sea of beans is based on the Who's LP "The Who Sell Out" where Daltry appears eating Heinz Beans etc to attack commercialism- this scene is the one the most people ask me if there are more photos. Russell himself did advertisements for baked beans and soap suds (in his advert, to show how the soap suds simply disappeared down the sink he filmed the suds being pumped into the sink then reversed the film).
During the film there were a number of accidents. Ann-Margret cut herself while filming the soapsuds episode (turning the suds red). Ann-Margret says "my hand went to the TV screen and the cut glass sliced into it. Dripping with blood I was quickly wrapped in a blanket and carried off the set, and then rushed to the hospital, where doctors took twenty-seven stitches to close the wound... [then] I shot a scene with my arm hidden under a table".
Daltry underwater almost drowned before the crew realised he was in trouble and dived in to help him. Daltry burnt himself when running through the fire and the later takes show him holding his injured arm.
Most spectacularly when filming on Southsea pier a fire broke out seriously damaging the pier. Ken used film of the real fire in part of Daltry´s running through fire sequence.
Python spin-off Rutland Weekend Television did a version, Pommy.
The Who obviously appear. Roger Daltry is Tommy and fortunately he does not speak for most of the film. Apart from Daltry, Keith Moon is the only acting Who member, relishing his role as the child molesting Uncle Ernie.
Other rock stars such as Elton John (Pinball Wizard) and Tina Turner (the Acid Queen) are spectacular in their video segments. Elton John was a possibility for a role in Ken Russell's Rainbow before he chickened out.
Eric Clapton (left) was too drugged out so Arthur Brown was brought in to make the scene more interesting. Oliver Reed appears as the Father, Ann-Margret as the mother (she was nominated for an Oscar for the role). Jack Nicholson is the doctor. Ken Russell's daughter plays Sally.
Editing is by Stuart Baird. Cinematography is by Dick Bush and Ronnie Taylor. Costumes are by Shirley Russell. Ken used in total a crew of 88. Tommy cost $2 million and took 22 weeks to shoot.
Russell can be seen in a wheelchair in one scene.
The church worshipping Marilyn Monroe with the row of Marilyns walking down the church aisle.
Dancers in gas masks in the London blitz sequences. The war sequences were originally going to be black and white.
Running through the fields.
He descends on Hells Angels from the air (a heavens angel), here reflected in the glasses.
Tommy has a lot of references including to Ken's BBC days (the waterfall sequences) as well as to Mahler (Robert Powell and the rocks). The train scene is similar to Fenby´s arrival in Delius, and the blind and paralysed Delius is a proto-Tommy. The mirrors with the young child could be from Bartok, the corridors remind you of the convent in The Devils.
There are snakes crawling on a skeleton.
The "cure" imagery is similar to that in Kubrick´s A Clockwork Orange.
Other films released in the same year include Star Wars, Annie Hall and The Spy Who Loved Me as well as Russell's Lisztomania.
Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore * Mindbender * Trapped Ashes/ The Girl with the Golden Breasts
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