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DIRECTOR: Ken Russell

FEATURING: , Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed , Eric Clapton, Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner, Paul Nicholas, , Pete Townshend, John Entwhistle

PLOT: Captain Walker is missing and presumed dead in World War II, but when he turns up alive, his wife’s new lover kills him. Unfortunately, Walker’s son Tommy witnesses this, and the trauma leaves him deaf, dumb and blind. But Tommy can still play a mean pinball, and he becomes an odd messiah to an army of idol worshipers.

Still from Tommy (1975)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because, with that story line, it’s a musical—literally a “rock opera”—and because Ken Russell stages every single scene like something out of a bad acid flashback.

COMMENTS: The Who’s original 1969 album, “Tommy” is wonderful to listen to, but its supposed story is impossible to figure out without, so to speak, illustrations. In this film, one of the first recorded in multi-channel sound, director Russell “illustrates”everything in the most garish hues possible—and that’s a good thing. This grotesque, excessive rock musical was clearly a predecessor to MTV, with its non-stop assault of insane imagery; Russell, not exactly the most subtle of filmmakers, is aided and abetted all the way through by an all-star cast. The Who’s lead singer, the great Roger Daltrey, inevitably plays Tommy with a vacant, blue-eyed stare, and belts every song to the back of the theater in the manner that made him famous (on the original “Tommy” album, his singing is much more low-key). Elton John, as the Pinball Wizard, parades around on stilts, while Tina Turner, as the Acid Queen, threatens to rip the screen apart with her intensity (although Paul Nicholas, as Tommy’s physically abusive Cousin Kevin, gives her a run for her money). Meanwhile, Eric Clapton as the Preacher, Keith Moon as the sexually abusive Uncle Ernie, Jack Nicholson (Ann-Margret’s old co-star from 1971’s “Carnal Knowledge”) as the Doctor, and Oliver Reed, as Tommy’s stepfather, are relatively subdued (and, yes, the last two are pretty terrible singers). Topping them all is Ann-Margret, in an unforgettable Oscar-nominated performance, as Tommy’s guilt-ridden mother. Obviously, Ann-Margret’s show tune-trained voice is really not suited to singing Pete Townshend’s music, but that only adds to the film’s strange appeal. Ann-Margret manages to be simultaneously brilliant and over-the-top (as she often is—see her Blanche Dubois in the 1984 version of Streetcar Named Desire), but when the part calls for her to roll around in baked beans and chocolate sauce, she doesn’t hold back. Then you have any number of frenzied images: Sally Simpson’s husband—a dead ringer for the Frankenstein monster, Tina Turner transformed into a giant hypodermic needle, Clapton preaching in a church filled with statues of Marilyn Monroe, Paul Nicholas burning Daltrey with a cigarette—this is a musical, all right, but it’s not exactly Meet Me in St. Louis. This version of Tommy may be bizarre to the point of self-parody, but anyone who’s ever seen the disastrous, but similar, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (produced, like Tommy, by Robert Stigwood), will understand the very special talents of the late Ken Russell.

Unfortunately, the Region 1 DVD (as well as the Blu-Ray) of Tommy has no extras, except for a paper insert describing the film’s “Quintaphonic” soundtrack. Luckily, the movie looks and sounds just fine.


“Russell correctly doesn’t give a damn about the material he started with… he just goes ahead and gives us one glorious excess after another… Tommy’s odyssey through life is punctuated by encounters with all sorts of weird folks, of whom the most seductive is Tina Turner as the Acid Queen.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

14 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: TOMMY (1975)”

    1. Got to agree with this. When I was first getting into the Who, a friend and I saw Lisztomania in a video rental store, and really dismissed the idea that it could be ‘that adult’.

      A few hours later, we were looking at each other trying to make sense of what we’d just seen.

    2. I just saw an old ad for LISZTOMANIA with the quote “It out-TOMMYs TOMMY!”. Apparently it does.

  1. Can I just add my vote for Lisztomania instead of Tommy? If only for THAT scene – you definitely know the one I mean! Any film in which Vampire Wagner rising from the grave as Frankenstein Hitler and machine-gunning everybody with his electric guitar is NOT the most bizarre scene takes some beating, does it not?

    And as far as I’m aware, World War II did not end with Hitler being destroyed by a deceased composer who descended from Heaven in a psychedelic transparent flying Wurlitzer – is this the only instance in cinema history of a musical instrument also being some sort of holy starship?

    Also, Tommy does actually make sense, in an exaggerated kind of way. Lisztomania is just – I don’t think there’s even a word for what it is! The film’s hardly started before our hero is chained up inside a piano which is then hit by a train and explodes! Who wrote this – Wile E. Coyote? And you ain’t seen nothing yet…

    Definitely Lisztomania over Tommy by a long way. Though not quite as long as – well, you know what I’m referring to, don’t you? Tell you what, though: there must surely exist a parallel universe in which Ken Russell teamed up with a different bunch of early seventies rockers, and instead of Tommy, stunned cinmea audiences were treated to Ken Russell’s In The Court Of The Crimson King. Now THAT would have made the List!

  2. G. Smalley – good heavens, no! I’m merely recalling that, when I posted a comment in the immediate wake of Ken Russell’s death suggesting that one of his films should instantly be elevated to the List as a mark of respect to one of the all-time colossi in this field, the response was that no action need be taken, since a number of his films were already under consideration, and obviously something would ultimately make it, the question being what?

    Therefore I assumed that the committee who decide what makes the final cut didn’t want too many films from the same director, irrespective of suitability. I also assumed that if two of those films both happened to be semi-musicals starring Roger Daltrey, it had to come down to one or the other. Obviously, if that’s not the case, then hey, by all means have ’em both – Tommy is plenty weird! Just nowhere near as weird as Lisztomania, if only because the plot of Tommy does actually make sense. Also, of course, it doesn’t have THAT scene!

    Oh, by the way, did anybody else notice that comic-book superhero Thor made his screen debut in Lisztomania? He’s not actually referred to as such in the dialogue, but the credits list him as “Thor”, and the costume he’s wearing is absolutely identical to the one he wears in the comics – much more so than in the recent Kenneth Branagh movie. He’s also a retarded, incontinent proto-Nazi. I’m surprised Marcel didn’t sue!

    1. Nope, there are no limitations on how many movies a single director can get on the List. Russell already has three: Lair of the White Worm, Gothic, and Altered States. And (spoiler coming) he’s not done yet. I can say that he will place more than zero more films on the List, but less than a dozen.

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