With Tommy, certified mad scientist Ken Russell retools that Old English warhorse of an album from the Who into a whirling dervish of flamboyant disco-fever proto-prog nonsense. Initially kindling the memory of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, Russell’s film derails whatever facsimile of sense or grubby intimacy remained in the semi-verite aesthetic found in that exultant spasm of a 1964 masterpiece. Which is fitting; the Who’s Tommy, the 1969 album, was essentially the turning point where British rock music mutated (sometimes to its detriment) from a cabal of psychedelically-charged, lacerating nuggets (more like aural secrets than full-throated arias) into bombastic, headlong plunges into super-textured, baroque madness, the bastard child of which became progressive rock. With the film A Hard Day’s Night, rock ‘n’ roll cinema was cheeky, provocative, untroubled, gallantly foolhardy, a burst of energy. By the film Tommy , rock ‘n’ roll cinema could be sinister and campy but was always distinctly troubled, a dialectic of cynicism and silliness coiled up in confusion, the once-burst now a full-on fever for good and ill. The decade in between the films speaks not only to shifts in musical impulses but a decade-long cultural-temperature slide from a birth wail to a death rattle. And when the coloration is this clamorous, it’s got shake and roll covered as well.
The problem with the music is apparent: concept albums mistakenly take the disruptive wooliness of rock music at its most rambunctious, unregimented, and gloriously irresponsible and channel that ruckus into the normative, deadening realm of narrative. They misapprehend the pulsating throbs of the musical impulse by building a story and too stable a form around the gleeful chaos of rock. Although the Who’s album is closer to a masterpiece of the form than a dogged trudge, the narrative drug certainly calcifies the music ever so slightly by shoehorning one art form into another. Compared to the band’s lascivious strut of a debut, My Generation, the rusty metaphors and over-stoked repetitions of the quasi-opera Tommy are petrified, rather than liberated, by forcing them under the sleeping gas of having to tell a full-album story. Ultimately, the concept album is the platonic ideal of Susan Sontag’s criticism of the hermeneutics of art, art as “meaning”, as opposed to erotic art, or art, rock music in this case, that willingly lets loose with felt force rather than conceptual ideas.
Rock music exceeds narrative, then; emotion funnels forth from the music’s act of simply being (thus a Sabbath album shivers with gut-churning malaise, Zeppelin whips up a frenzy, both through their peculiar musical energies which are too strange and uncontainable to be clarified via the iron-fist of narrative). The “concept” for those bands is a constellation of stirred sensations and emotions, rather than a doctrinal “theme” or a “story”. They are the inverse of the traditional concept album.
And so are Russell’s films, taking a narrative art form and rupturing any semblance of cohesion, throwing away the British kitchen-sink realism of his partners in crime (most other British directors around this time) and throwing in, instead, the actual kitchen sink. And pounds of baked beans, because who can resist? Russell derails the narrative impulse without ever deigning to take his material too literally; he thrusts the Who’s story through the throngs of surrealism and pure sensation instead. He’s a cinematic saboteur, creating a film split-down-the-middle between acid casualty and egg-beaten vaudeville apparatus, a showbiz riff nonetheless alive with rumors of the social disruption and sexual friction throughout the mid-‘70s. Themes don’t exactly cross the finish line untarnished, of course, but this cinematic sideshow mushrooms into full-tilt carousel, a satire of a world so jaundiced that the lack of theme is the theme itself.
The enormity of the musical performances aren’t exactly supple; they’re an orgy compared to a Kiss and a fabulous diva rather than a Queen. But there’s a voluminous, cascading appeal to the way the film turns composer-guitarist Pete Townshend’s post-psychedelia rave-ups into visual-first bacchanals and drippy, sweaty drug phase-outs. And speaking of queens, Tina Turner at her most dastardly makes an appearance as the Acid Queen, purring, wrapping the film around her like it’s an adjective for her to whip to her liking, and singing like an embolism is around the corner with every line.
Venomous performances like Turner’s, not to mention the cocaine-addicted exploitation grub of Russell’s filmmaking, are the film’s underwire, and they alone salvage a film that is affronted rather dubiously with the sanitization of rock music. The song arrangements – big, beefy, pompous ‘70s ballast and no late ‘60s bounce or weirdness – reveal a certain disco-fication that corporatizes the music and strips it of the stray, stringy, out-of-nowhere tangles and jumbles of the more experimental time before AOR and the rise of the Bee Gees.
The Who’s best material swivels and swings with the catharsis and unaccountable freakishness of the psychedelic era when rock music was still figuring itself out, deeply entwined in its wild-eyed formative years, and thus at its most animated to run around flouting norms that were still in the making. That spirit was prismatically perverted into ion storm (The Stooges), carnival show (Alice Cooper), cemetery crawl and cloudy sonic threat (Black Sabbath), phallic thrust and mastodon rampage (Led Zeppelin), pansexual sandman stardust (Bowie), fey Dionysian tease (T. Rex) and more throughout the entropic early ‘70s. And then it was flattened into a machine by Boston, The Eagles, Journey, all of them pacifying the pelvic your-trash-is-my-treasure sense of discovery in early rock music, where rust was a wellspring of beauty. In the mid to late ‘70s, corporations cleaned up the back alley (preferably Tin Pan Alley) rattle and ruckus, and they took music to the middlebrow, to radio, and to its doom.
Russell’s film resurrects that Crazy World of Arthur Brown fierceness, kindling the arena into an inescapable, unsettled pile-on of emerald-tinted lunacy, a put-on of slippery loopiness operating at the fringes of common sense, and a turn-on of hyper-sensory enthusiasm, all logically senseless but attuned to its own senses. All flash-bang color and tiring histrionics of the most unapologetic caliber, pinball (and music) mutate into sexual orgy here. Oh, and Ann-Margret is around as Tommy’s mother presumably because she likes being in these sorts of eccentric cinematic run-ons of space-opera/soap-opera zest, films that devoutly disabuse themselves of the need to settle with society’s expectations for them. This Tommy doesn’t really care whether you like it or not.
Frankly, this Tommy also not only resurrects but repurposes. The original album was all laddish innocence, but there’s something effervescently nasty in this version, like a world bubbling from kaleidoscopic dream to a nightmare-in-fuchsia. Even the goofy “see me, feel me, touch me, hear me” refrains of belabored desire for belonging and companionship in the original music metastasize into something freakish and feverishly post-erotic (something libidinously sensual) in a film with probably a dozen objects that are symbols for vaginas. The cheeky innocence of the original album channels through a filmic snafu, a film about the toxic perversion of personal joy at the hands of corporate structures that is itself a toxic perversion of corporate ‘70s rock by virtue of its own indelible filmic exuberance. Even disco becomes malignant, dangerous, deranged. For a ‘70s world in the mood for immediate sensory gratification, this film is sensory assault, sensory overload.
If that weren’t enough, the film also functions as critique of the album. The over-earnest “meaning” found in the concept album fragments under Russell’s film which, in an inebriated and shambolic flurry, doesn’t connect a single one of its sequined dots or sequences. The “story” through-line becomes a comic impulse for disruption as the film disfigures the narrative we expect. Even the lyrical literalism is thrust forward into the frame, with the film depicting events from the album only in the most ham-fistedly irrelevant ways imaginable. The film almost feels like a slovenly, bugged-out parody of a concept album’s “story” rather than a pastiche of one.
If there’s an issue, it’s that the monomaniacal drive for constant frisson strokes an elephantine erection that sabotages the possibility for polyphonic purpose; which is to say, Russell’s vision is Russell’s Vision, and it is his way or the highway. The amusing blind spots, the sideways glances, the seemingly aimless bits that hide the beauty of the moment, the idiosyncratic energies of humanity? All are flattened under Russell’s monolithic impulse for enormity, for better or worse. This is a film of constant peaks, but at some point, a constant peak is a plateau, and the dips and troughs that complicate life and affectively charge the peaks with a sense of counterpoint more or less fade away. Initially we feel a film gloriously in passage from beginning to end and alive to the beautiful narcosis of perpetual impermanence. Eventually, the perpetual passage curdles into sea-sickness.
Admittedly, the Who were always the most likely of the big four British Invasion bands to emphasize length and girth over anything else, so in Russell they’ve found not only a counterpoint for their album but a harmonic accompaniment. There’s a certain exuberance to being “on” all the time. Right around the time you partake in Oliver Reed’s rotund flesh cut by a wiry skeleton covered in snakes (nearly after Tina Turner ghoulishly leashes you to her maw in a pulverizing close-up of her lips), there’s a certain orgiastic wavelength that you’re either way-on or tuned-off. While the sinister post-psychedelic vibe is creeping from one side of the frame to the other, it’s either creeping into your soul or in one ear and out the other. Rock music as car crash, Tommy is a little basic, a little blunt, but it’s the rare film that feels at once alive and totally fried.