Friday, 4 May 2012


'Tommy' was always going to be a stop on our charabanc tour of Ken Russell films, wasn't it? Probably his single best known film, 'Tommy' is a compendium of all of Ken's strengths - his startling visual imagination, his empathy for music, his energy - and his weaknesses - vulgarity, glib excess, hammy acting.

A monster in every sense of the word, the film was the perfect artefact of the increasing overblown and bloated rock scene of the mid 70s, making back seven times its original budget. Its enormous success made Russell a household name but irreparably damaged his career - in its wake he was able to do whatever he wanted, so he did whatever he wanted, and his films got worse and worse and less and less popular.

Bit of a recurring motif, then...

Based, of course, on The Who’s 1968 ‘rock opera’ (itself a watershed in the groups career: they too got more and more bombastic afterwards, with varying results) the film has no dialogue, just music, with Russell using his hyperactive mind to fill in the visual gaps. He does this brilliantly, and some of his sequences are unforgettable. This is Ken Russell, however, so much of it is charmingly DIY and of the ‘spray it silver, no-one will notice’ school. For all its alignment with the 'rock' era, however, 'Tommy' is all about pop - pop colours, pop decor, pop art.  

It's a threefer!

Tina Turner's crazy, quivering lips.

Like the LP, the film starts to flag after about half an hour as the songs become repetitive and the narrative becomes muddled but, unlike the LP, the film is never boring, as there is always something interesting popping up on the periphery, whether it be an over acting extra, a groovy set, a Hells Angel turf war or a flash of Ann-Margret’s formidable cleavage. It was a bad idea to let Oliver Reed sing, and an even worse idea to let Paul Nicholas act, but there you go, it made sense at the time.

The glamour of the star system.  

Bad news for coprophiliacs; good news for chocoholics.

Roger Daltrey resembles Robin Askwith's slightly more upright brother.

Here's that motif again...

...and again.

Very entertaining, and pretty much unique, ‘Tommy’ is not the greatest Ken Russell film by any means, but it’s probably the biggest, and certainly the loudest.

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