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Columbia TriStar
1975 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 111 min. / Street Date December 17, 2002 / $27.96
Starring Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Eric Clapton, John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Paul Nicholas, Jack Nicholson, Robert Powell, Pete Townshend, Tina Turner
Cinematography Dick Bush, Robin Lehman, Ronnie Taylor
Production Designer
Art Direction John Clark
Film Editor Stuart Baird
Original Music John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Pete Townshend, Sonny Boy Williamson
Written by Pete Townshend and Ken Russell
Produced by Ken Russell, Christopher Stamp, Robert Stigwood, Beryl Vertue
Directed by Ken Russell

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Said by some to be the first theatrical film released in Dolby Stereo, Tommy is also a definite precursor to the Music Video format, even moreso than other Ken Russell movies. A commercial confection that suffers from some conceptual weaknesses, it's gaudy and colorful, but visually superficial and thuddingly literal. Considered a tour-de-force for Russell, it's certainly the result of a lot of effort, but isn't the easiest show to get through.

Columbia's new SuperBit disc, foregoing extras to devote a maximum of data per frame, gives this edition a very bright, colorful and sharp image.


Captain Walker (Robert Powell) apparently dies in aerial combat over Europe while his son Tommy (Barry Winch, then Roger Daltrey) is born. Tommy's mother, Nora Walker (Ann-Margret) takes up with a promoter by the name of Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed), and when The Captain shows up scarred but alive, Frank murders him. Witnessing this, Tommy goes into a catatonic state. A senseless lost soul, he's loved by his parents but placed at the mercy of his dangerous cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas) and his molesting Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon). Hoping to shock him out of his isolation, Frank takes him to the Acid Queen (Tina Turner), and she exposes him to mind-altering drugs. But at his father's fun fair, the deaf, dumb and blind Tommy becomes an amazing pinball player, besting the previous champion wizard (Elton John). A specialist (Jack Nicholson) seemingly cannot do anything for Tommy, but when Nora breaks the mirror into which he constantly stares, Tommy's psychic spell is broken. Emerging into the world of the living, he becomes a strange new messiah, prescribing sensory isolation as the path toward self-fulfillment.

At 16, Savant actually played the original Who Tommy album until it seemed the grooves would fall apart like an onion, on a turntable stereo brought back from Saigon by a favorite cousin. The Who were long on rhythm and short on melody, but when their songs were good, they were terrific. Their earlier The Who Sell Out, clearly imitating Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, was a clever concept album that tied its songs together with satirical 'Radio London' commercial promos. As with the original album of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy is rather thin on orchestration. But, unlike The Who's earlier albums, which had a very high ratio of repeated tracks, Tommy is well-recorded and intriguingly presented. It has an epic feel, and it tells a fragmented but emotional story. The lyrics are sometimes on the painful side, but Tommy's plaintive cry of 'See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me' is affecting. When the mirror is smashed, the dramatic sensation is similar to a good radio play.

Tommy the movie is just under two hours of unrelenting Music-Video confected songs and action. Writer-director Ken Russell has to take blame for the show's eventual dullness - there's just too much happening for any of it to make a proper impact. The performances are spirited but even pros like Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed can't keep up with the gross overacting required - for the whole running time of the movie, Ann-Margret is in one or another kind of extreme torment. For the gross-out highlight, she wallows in torrents of Baked Beans and chocolate. They're not Heinz Baked beans, as in the gag on the cover of The Who Sell Out, the obvious inspiration, but the effect is the same. Russell lays on interesting images, like screenfuls of ball bearing-like metal pinballs, and some schematic but effective animation, but two hours of flat colors, over-lit sets and writhing, grimacing actors is just too much. Even Pink Floyd's the Wall has better art direction and a sense of variety; Ken Russell has made some spectacularly visual films (The Devils, The Boy Friend) but this is mostly a headache.

Musically, Tommy isn't up to snuff. The star setpieces are rather good - Elton John and Tina Turner have good episodes, but the original album has been fleshed out with weak material to bridge the narrative, and give more for Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed to do. Robert Stigwood, the producer, is the promoter behind the films versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Grease, and the music here is equally overproduced. The Who's original themes become secondary to over-orchestration and elaboration.

Most of the singing voices are weak, especially Oliver Reed, and a woefully miscast Jack Nicholson. Nicholson must have come on board as a favor to Ann-Margret - his appearance is the lowpoint of the film. On the other hand, Robert Powell (of The Asphyx) is very effective, perhaps because he has so little singing to do. 15 years beyond Bye Bye Birdie, Ann-Margret can still certainly shake it up wild enough, but here we wonder why she's getting so excited. Roger Daltrey is thin but effective as Tommy. He's by necessity such a puppet in the proceedings (gotta keep up with that music track!), that it doesn't seem fair to criticize him.

Design-wise, Tommy has its fans. The Marilyn Monroe cult and the Acid Queen's hypodermic Iron Maiden, are arresting visual attractions. But overall, the show suffers from overly literal interpretation, of the 'say a duck, see a duck' variety. Every hint in the lyrics is followed explicitly: "Little old lady welcome, and you baker." Sally Simpson (Victoria Russell - a daughter?) simply apes exactly what the lyrics tell her to do. The design aims for a graphic, carnival atmosphere, but often just looks cheap.

Perhaps Savant's taste is off - after all, Tommy does look like a template for MTV - but this was a film I sat through for curiosity's sake, not for entertainment.

Columbia's SuperBit DVD of Tommy will doubtless please fans of the show. The picture is vibrant and as sharp as a tack, and the track is provided in DD 5.1 and DTS. As all the bit space is saved for the image, there are of course no extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Tommy rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 2, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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