Directed by: Ken Russell
Starring: Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner
It’s odd for me to realize that I have never actually reviewed Tommy (1975), though I’ve certainly written about it in other capacities. I’m not about to pass up the chance to finally do so—35 years after the fact. But I’m not here offering a review of the film so much as I am offering one on the newly restored version of it being run by the Asheville Film Society—and my reaction to the new print. My initial response is a largely unqualified “Wow!” Nearly everything I’d heard about the new print is true—and I really felt it was 1975 once more while watching it. I’ll go so far as to fall back on the adjective “mind-blowing,” because in many ways that describes it best (yeah, I grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s).
This is the film as I have never seen it—at least so memory suggests. I know it beats the trousers off any of the video versions, and I’ve seen them all, including the RCA CED (remember those?) disc one. But I saw details in the image Friday night I do not remember seeing before. When I took the “Superbit” DVD and did a frame grab and then lightened the image, I could see some of these details, but by then the overall image had suffered in the process. That doesn’t happen with the restored print—the detail is there and the integrity of the overall image remains unchanged.
The sound track is sharp and clear—especially the vocals—in ways I do not recall, and there’s much more audio detail that has been brought out. The sound mix is also different and much fuller. I’m not sure it exactly reproduces the Quintophonic experience, but I suspect that would require bringing in the actual speaker setup that was used back then. A brace of smaller speakers running around the auditorium isn’t exactly the same as two refrigerator-sized Altec Lansing Voice of the Theater monsters attached to the back wall, which was the layout in 1975. In any case, I was not in the least disappointed by the overall quality. Anything that might have been lost in terms of separation—and that’s from a memory of long ago and with a 20-year-old’s hearing—is more than made up for in the clarity of the mix.
One observation I do want to make about the film, though, is that it’s unwise to try to judge it as it goes along—and that’s an obvious temptation in a movie that breaks down into a series of musical-number set pieces. Try to resist that, however, and assess the film as a whole—by what it achieves cumulatively. You’ll still end up with favorite sequences (I’ve heard of screenings of this version where the audience broke into applause after specific scenes), but the impact of the film is the way those scenes link together to produce the entire story and experience.
Anyone who has tried making a film or editing one, can look at Tommy as a kind of textbook on how a film is put together. You can isolate scenes and bits of scenes and see how a sense of a continuous action was achieved by the manipulation of the imagery: Tommy’s (Roger Daltey) crash through the mirror and his plunge into a pool of water (the film is much more allegorical and symbolic than literal) is a perfect example. But I’ll leave you to figure it out, if you’re so inclined. What amazes me is that I know how nearly every shot was done by this point, but that hasn’t dimmed what is to me the essential magic of the movie.
One thing I very much noticed this round is the fact that Ken Russell is very probably the best hand-held camera operator ever. Any time the camera is unanchored to a tripod, you can be pretty sure Russell is himself doing the shooting. Watch the way he makes the camera an actual part of the choreography in the “Acid Queen” sequence, especially in the opening parts. It’s even more impressive when you constrast it with much of the hand-held camera work we see today. The only time he uses anything like the shaky-cam approach is in the sequence where Tommy is picked up in the junkyard—where he’s deliberately evoking TV news footage.
There are a number of places where the camera is hand-held that aren’t apparent. The shot of Cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas) standing over Tommy from Tommy’s point of view was done with Russell lying on his back shooting up at Kevin. You can glimpse Russell operating one of the multiple cameras used for “Pinball Wizard” in a shot past Keith Moon playing the drums. (He also has a cameo in the opening of “Welcome”—seated in a wheelchair sporting the great big bushy beard he had at the time—when the camera zooms back from the little girl’s face.)
But let’s be honest here, if you don’t like rock music in general or the Who in particular, you’re very probably not going to like this movie—though you may admire it for other reasons. It is, on the other hand, quite possible not to like the original Tommy album and like the film. I kind of fall into that camp and I certainly did in 1975. Since I didn’t really know who Ken Russell was at the time and hadn’t cared for the album very much, it’s a film I originally saw only because of Elton John. Things change. And a lot of them changed for me after this movie. Will your senses never be the same, as the original ad campaign said? Well, there’s only one way to find out.
The Asheville Film Society presents a special AFS benefit screening of Tommy Wednesday, Sept. 1, at 7:30 p.m. at The Carolina Asheville. Hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther. Tickets are $9.75/$8.75 for AFS members.