Howdy all you Supercultists out there on the interwebz!
I’m Bad Movie Professor Cameron Coker (BS in “Rock Operas” with a minor in “Jack Nicholson Singing”) and I’ll be posting my hype-tacular speeches every week along with some long lost speeches from past Supercult Shows!
This week we’re racking up a million points with the Who’s Rock Opera, Tommy!
Tommy is a boy traumatized by childhood misfortune and loss. To the outside world he seems to have been struck deaf, dumb, and blind, but inside his fractured mind Tommy dreams of spending time with his father and one day owning his own holiday camp. It isn’t until he finds himself behind the flippers of a pinball machine that Tommy’s world begins to brighten. Soon Tommy is being hailed as the Pinball Wizard and becomes the object of a religious cult, but can fame, fortune, and disciples bring happiness to the boy? How do you think he does it? I don’t know! One thing’s for certain though…That deaf dumb and blind kid sure can play a mean pinball!
Released in 1975, Tommy is a British musical based on the 1969 rock opera album of the same title by legendary rock and roll band, the Who, and written and composed primarily by Pete Townshend, the band’s lead guitarist. Including such tracks as “I’m Free”, “See Me, Feel Me”, and “Pinball Wizard”, Tommy is ranked number 96 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time and 90 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Rock and Roll Albums. It made sense with the album’s success that the band would eventually pursue an honest to god Rock Opera. To direct they found the flamboyant, but nevertheless engrossing, Ken Russell who is known for directing such titles as Altered States, The Devils, The Lair of the White Worm. Though often dismissed by critics, the internationally renowned Russel is generally considered to be at once visionary and controversial with something of a sixth sense when it comes to making captivating oddball dramas.
Needless to say a rock opera featuring the Who and Russell would be a magnificent affair in the eyes of fans, but perhaps not as positively grandiose and outrageous as it turned out to be! The film is a feast for the eyes filled with hallucinatory imagery and over the top performances. One famous scene that parodies the 1967 album, The Who Sell Out, depicts Tommy’s mother cavorting in detergent foam and baked beans and ends with her sensuously swimming in chocolate sauce.
Boasting an all-star musical cast, Tommy features Ann-Margret as Tommy’s mom Norra, Oliver Reed as Tommy’s stepfather Frank, Elton John as the Local Lad and reigning Pinball Wizard, Eric Clapton as the Preacher, Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie, Paul Nicholas as Cousin Kevin, Jack Nicholson as the Specialist Doctor, and Tina Turner as the seductive Acid Queen. The band members of the Who also play a role: lead vocalist Roger Daltry stars as Tommy Walker while the rest serve as the Elton John’s band during the Pinball Wizard sequence. If the visuals and musical numbers weren’t enough to send modern audiences into rock induced seizure fits, add in this extravagant cast and keep in mind that for the majority of the film the actor playing Tommy is basically the same age as those playing his parents.
Ken Russell originally wanted Christopher Lee to play the Doctor. But he was in Bangkok, Thailand, filming The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Luckily, Jack Nicholson was in London at the time, and he was brought in as a last-minute replacement for Lee. His singing and his film part were filmed and recorded in 18 hours.
According to Ken Russell’s DVD commentary Elton John initially turned down the part of the Pinball Wizard and David Essex was seriously considered. However Elton eventually agreed to the role on the condition that he could keep the oversized skyscraper Doc Martin boots from his costume.
If anyone is familiar with the original 1969 album, the film differs in quite a few ways, most of which serve to enhance the plot. Unlike other filmed rock operas, such as Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, the 1975 film never stoops to dubbing the visuals with the album music, but rather the actors, including Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed, neither of whom is known for their singing ability, perform the songs in character instead of The Who. All the songs were rerecorded for the film, several new songs were added, the lyrics to many of the songs were adjusted, and the order of the songs on the album was changed to suit the plot, resulting in a more balanced and cohesive overall structure for the opera.
Tommy was a commercial and critical success. Ann-Margret received a Golden Globe Award for her performance and was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Pete Townshend was also nominated for an Oscar for his work in scoring and adapting the music for the film, and in 1975 the film won the award for Rock Movie of the Year in the First Annual Rock Music Awards, which if anyone is interested, was created and subsequently failed to be an alternative to the Grammy’s and was discontinued after three years. Elton John’s version of “Pinball Wizard” was later a hit single and is the only cover of a Who song to break the top 10 to date.
Tommy has a 6.5 on IMDB, a 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, and from a budget of $5 million grossed a whopping $34 million. The late great Roger Ebert gave Tommy 3 out of 4 stars saying, “[Russel] just goes ahead and gives us one glorious excess after another…the effect is exhilarating and exhausting.”
With all these accolades many serious suptercultists might be asking themselves what makes Tommy a cult film in the first place? What right does an Oscar nominated, commercial success have to stand toe to toe with films like Deadly Prey or The Room? Well to that I say, chill out man, it’s a Rock Opera written by and starring the Who that criticizes structured religion, commercialism, and hypocrisy, and features Tina Turner in an Iron Maiden studded with hypodermic needles! What more could you possibly want?!
His disciples lead him in,
and he just does the rest…
The Supercult show is proud to present Tommy!