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Episode 160 - Tommy (w/ David Fear)


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Poll: Episode 160 - Tommy (w/ David Fear) (24 member(s) have cast votes)

Should "Tommy" enter The Canon?

  1. Yes (12 votes [50.00%])

    Percentage of vote: 50.00%

  2. No (12 votes [50.00%])

    Percentage of vote: 50.00%

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#1 Dalton Maltz

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Posted 24 June 2018 - 05:01 PM

Film critic David Fear joins Amy this week to discuss the 1975 rock musical “Tommy.” They’ll trace the roots of rock star celebrity hysteria plus The Who’s many contributions to the art form before getting into the film’s uninhibited tone, its contrast of trauma with excess, and the cultural flowing of “sick humor.” Plus, we’ll hear about Ann-Margret’s power performance and how “Tommy” finds heart within a loud premise.

#2 mercy_croft

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Posted 25 June 2018 - 01:00 PM

Was excited to listen to this episode. I'm torn about how to vote (though leaning towards 'yes'), because it's been a while and I need to give Tommy another watch to judge it fairly, but I remember being fascinated by it and the film having incredible moments, visuals, energy, weird song deliveries, and performances, but not totally adding up to a solid whole for me, having a few elements that rubbed me the wrong way, and losing focus by the end. That being said, I love and admire imperfect/messy/chaotic films that go full-energy, I love what Ken Russell does with the style and feel of the film, it is a classic rock opera, and Ann-Margret's performance, in particular, is absolutely wild and amazing and perfect. And the film does have a huge cultural impact.

As a quick Ann-Margret aside, I'm a huge fan of hers and there are a lot of great videos of her to watch, including:
-Her & Tina Turner performing together on Ann-Margret's TV show:


However, Tommy makes me think about my favorite Ken Russell film, The Devils (1971), which I'd highly recommend in general but which I also think is very Canon-worthy. Maybe it's not fair to compare the two films or spend time on it here, since it doesn't need to be limited to one film per director and because the two films are so different (although they do share the Ken Russell-typical onslaught of non-stop chaotic energy and the themes of celebrity, religious fervor, and tragedy + excess, as well as a wild lead performance by Oliver Reed). The Devils is such a masterpiece and I think it's absolutely Russell's smartest, most effective, and most powerful film. It's horrifying, overwhelming, and entertaining, and a brilliant (and still potent) comment on politics and religion working together to manipulate and control. Vanessa Redgrave, Reed, and the rest of the cast put in incredible, grotesque performances, Derek Jarman's set design is striking and beautiful, and Russell is at his best, wielding his chaos and messiness so elegantly to create something shocking, disturbing, gorgeous, and meaningful. The film is less widely-seen than Tommy for a number of reasons, though legendary, since it has only very recently become available in its entirety, as it was widely banned and censored for decades because of its intense mixture of sexuality, violence, and blasphemy.

But again, probably not fair to spend so much time on another Russell film here. I need to give Tommy another proper watch and maybe it will win me over in its entirety more thoroughly this time. Regardless of me having mixed feelings about it, the movie probably deserves a place there. It is very innovative and not quite like anything else.

#3 mercy_croft

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Posted 25 June 2018 - 01:01 PM

One more from Ann-Margret:


#4 TheFanon

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Posted 25 June 2018 - 02:14 PM

I am on the same page as many voters last week. Tommy is in my personal canon, but I'm not sure it is worthy of the capital-C Canon. I'm leaning towards a yes for the general Canon as I think it is a culturally important piece of '70s pop-art. Ken Russell is an essential cult filmmaker, and GOD DAMN does his visual interpretation of Tommy pack a wallop. It is somehow even more outrageous and wildly satirical than the double album it's based on. It is in my own Canon as a 2 hour music video of passionately surreal and campy imagery. When it comes to movies like this, many people ask "I enjoy it but is it good?", and when it comes to my own personal taste, I could not give less of a fuck. My (sober!) senses are overwhelmed and I could not be happier.

Semi-related: If you liked this, I highly recommend Russell/Daltrey's follow-up film Lisztomania. It's available via the Warner Archive. The last 30 minutes contains some of the most bugfuck crazy things I have ever seen from a studio film. It's truly one of my favorite films of all time.

#5 mercy_croft

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Posted 25 June 2018 - 03:02 PM

Lisztomania is the most manic film I have ever seen - which is saying a lot, considering Ken Russell's entire body of work! It was so utterly overwhelming and out there that I could barely absorb it in one viewing. Definitely another one I need to revisit.

#6 sycasey 2.0

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Posted 25 June 2018 - 03:32 PM

Respectful no. I understand the intent behind this movie, but at some point I find the extreme audio-visual stimulation more exhausting than thrilling.

It's tough to make a logical argument for or against this movie. You either feel it or you don't. I can see an argument for voting Tommy in, given that I'm not sure we'll ever have a chance to induct a "rock opera" again.

#7 bleary

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Posted 25 June 2018 - 04:11 PM

I got really into The Who sometime around middle school or early high school, and the album Tommy was probably the album that I listened to the most in high school. For that reason, I can't judge the film Tommy in any sort of way that separates it from my feelings about the original album.

For that reason, I found it really ironic in the episode that David lamented music videos ruining personal visualization of a piece of music, and then saying that Tommy avoids this problem, which he of course feels largely because he saw the film before hearing the album. As someone who listened to the album a lot before seeing the film, I will say definitively that Tommy does not avoid this problem at all. Although this was the first time I've seen the film, I saw a performance of the rock opera sometime in late high school or college, and the differences between the plot of the film/opera and the plot of the album as I visualized it really bummed me out. For one thing, I always liked the ambiguity in the beginning of the album, where it's unspecified what Tommy actually witnesses that triggers his psychosomatic symptoms. Having Mrs. Walker meet someone else, leading to a conflict with the surviving Captain Walker is a fine answer to that ambiguity, although the idea of Bernie's Holiday Camp and the appropriation of the album's song "Tommy's Holiday Camp" retconned for this purpose seemed unnecessary to me. And moreover, even if it is a fine solution, I felt a little robbed by losing that mystery.

In my opinion, the high points of the film coincide with the high points of the album, being "Pinball Wizard" and "Go to the Mirror." Elton John's performance of "Pinball Wizard" is great, and Nicholson's performance of "Go to the Mirror" worked for me, unconventional as it was. In the album, "Go to the Mirror" is the lynchpin that makes the whole thing work, in that it functions as connective tissue that advances the story, introduces key themes both narratively and musically, and also is just a really good song. It features the diagnosis and concerns of the doctor and the mother contrasting with the desperate pleas of Tommy's subconscious to be seen and heard, and then crescendos towards a resolution in the form of the "Listening to You" theme that is later reprised in "We're Not Gonna Take It." This lead into and introduction of the "Listening to You" is one of my favorite pieces of rock music ever. So of course, I was very disappointed that the film completely drops this from the end of "Go to the Mirror," and instead crescendos without resolution.

And lastly, the film/opera have the critique of capitalism as a central message, while that isn't present at all in the album. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against a solid rock and roll criticism of capitalism (including The Who Sell Out), but that was never what I thought Tommy was. The added songs that reinforce this do nothing to me, though I have admiration for Ann-Margret for doing everything she could to sell them. The biggest casualty of this change of point of view was the final song, "We're Not Gonna Take It," which I always interpreted the way that Townshend originally intended, as a song of rebellion against authority in general and fascism in particular. However, the film/opera pulls a 180, and seemingly makes it a song of rebellion against... anti-capitalism? Guruism and hero worship? Religion in general? At any rate, because Tommy is the hero of the story, it means the audience is predisposed to be against the crowd singing "We're Not Gonna Take It" instead of for them. More than anything else, that fundamental change left me so disappointed when I first saw the opera.

So like I said at the onset, I can't judge the film on things like acting and design and direction, because everything about the adaptation from album to opera leaves me with bad feelings, and I have to vote no based on that. At the same time, I understand that someone who either saw the movie first or had a visualization of the album that aligned with the film's interpretation could adore this film. I happen to love the film version of Pink Floyd's The Wall, but I could see someone easily having the same problems with it that I have with the film Tommy.

#8 TheFanon

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Posted 25 June 2018 - 05:35 PM

View Postbleary, on 25 June 2018 - 04:11 PM, said:

And lastly, the film/opera have the critique of capitalism as a central message, while that isn't present at all in the album. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against a solid rock and roll criticism of capitalism (including The Who Sell Out), but that was never what I thought Tommy was. The added songs that reinforce this do nothing to me, though I have admiration for Ann-Margret for doing everything she could to sell them. The biggest casualty of this change of point of view was the final song, "We're Not Gonna Take It," which I always interpreted the way that Townshend originally intended, as a song of rebellion against authority in general and fascism in particular. However, the film/opera pulls a 180, and seemingly makes it a song of rebellion against... anti-capitalism? Guruism and hero worship? Religion in general? At any rate, because Tommy is the hero of the story, it means the audience is predisposed to be against the crowd singing "We're Not Gonna Take It" instead of for them. More than anything else, that fundamental change left me so disappointed when I first saw the opera.


This is an interesting take/interpretation and I respectfully disagree with most of it. I also heard the record before I saw the film, and I have always interpreted We're Not Gonna Take It as showing that Tommy's followers were definitely rebelling against him, capitalism, religion, authority, etc. They now recognize that he does not have the answers they seek and they throw him to the wolves. With the song Welcome we get a sense that Tommy's ambition to help everyone is getting out of his hands ("Excuse me sir, there's more at the door!"). Then, with Tommy's Holiday Camp, we know that this is starting to become a terrible scam ("I'm your Uncle Ernie and I'll welcome you to Tommy's Holiday Camp! The camp with the difference, nevermind the weather, when you come to Tommy's, the holiday's forever!")

The point of view of We're Not Gonna Take It can be confusing. I've always interpreted it as Tommy saying "Hey you gettin' drunk, so sorry, I got you sussed, hey you smokin' mother nature, this is a bust", then his followers, realizing that this has become a religion, saying "We're not gonna take it, gonna break it, gonna shake it, let's forget it better still". I've never interpreted this as a critique of anti-capitalism. I've always interpreted the last section of the album as critiques of religion and capitalism. I can understand you being bummed that Tommy was no longer a sympathetic character in that moment, but I believe that beat has always been there.

But, then again, it's all interpretation. You could be right and I could be wrong.

Edit: My bad, I forgot that Townshend and Entwistle sing as Tommy's followers in We're Not Gonna Take It. I think this illustrates their intent even further: Townshend originally intended the song as a rebellious song against fascism, but in the context of the album, it was repurposed to be about the followers rebelling against Tommy and what he has become. I think the song can be enjoyed with both meanings, with and without the context of the opera.

#9 bleary

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Posted 25 June 2018 - 06:38 PM

View PostTheFanon, on 25 June 2018 - 05:35 PM, said:

Townshend originally intended the song as a rebellious song against fascism, but in the context of the album, it was repurposed to be about the followers rebelling against Tommy and what he has become.


Agreed, but in the film and opera, Tommy's message always came off as living a more stripped down life, but that could just be me. Also, I think the film/opera are very critical of Frank and Mrs. Walker (her name is Nora according to imdb?) for their exploitation of the crowd, but the crowd doesn't seem to turn on that aspect. They are willing to part with their money easily enough, and their rejection comes when Tommy suggests that they make a more substantial change in their lives than that. That's why I suggested the mob had a pro-capitalist tint, but I suppose that might be a stretch.

At any rate, I definitely see the mob at the end as the "bad guys," and in that context, the song bums me out by giving them the perceived empowerment.

#10 Johnny Pomatto

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Posted 25 June 2018 - 08:53 PM

How do I put this delicately? I hate TOMMY. Alright, maybe that's a bit extreme, but I've had a complicated relationship with the film for most my life, to say the least. I'm a devoted fan of The Who and have fond memories listening to the album TOMMY since I was about 3 years old while swimming at the neighbor's pool. I love the music and I love almost all of the actors and musicians featured in TOMMY. So why could I never connect to the film. Well, perhaps I saw it at too early an age. It was all a little overwhelming for young Johnny to handle, and while plenty of the story went over my head (particularly Uncle Ernie), much of it I just didn't enjoy and was rather disgusted by (Beans). Although I don't think this is exclusively what turns me off about the film, I think David is right about some music being too ingrained in one's own mind that seeing a visual interpretation that doesn't match one's imagination can be off putting. The original album of TOMMY is especially designed to tell a story, so when Ken Russell's film starts to stray from what I always perceived the narrative to be, perhaps I misconstrue it as being poor quality when it's really just less than what I've idealized. I have a similar reaction to Alan Parker's film of PINK FLOYD'S THE WALL. But is this reason enough to down vote it for The Canon, or is it far too personal for a thing for me?

I'll concede that I didn't rewatch TOMMY this week to prepare for this episode. The last time I watched the film was last summer when it was shown theatrically at The Quad in New York. Since most my interaction with the film in this century had been the occasional DVR'ing of it on cable so that I could fast forward through it to get to my favorite scenes and songs, I thought I should try to watch the film start to finish again. I still didn't much care for it, even though I find a lot of the imagery and tone to be quite striking. I just wonder if it doesn't go far enough or perhaps it arrived too late. This film would have felt right at home more or less around the release of the album. At that time, The Monkees made their cinematic opus with HEAD, and I think that film had more of the spirit that The Who's album was going after. I always thought that the film of TOMMY had come earlier than it actually did, partially because Jack Nicholson's cameo would have felt more at home in that era when he was not yet too famous to participate in such a thing, but perhaps I make this connection because Nicholson co-wrote HEAD and I have trouble separating the two films. I guess I feel that the time that it took TOMMY to get to the big screen made its mod culture and imagery seem like a pale imitation rather than one authentic to the late 60's when it was first conceived.

This is a movie I always wish I could love more than I do. It's certainly a fascinating curio. Fun to see The Who perform in a film. Great to see the likes of Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed in these roles. And theoretically great to see music legends like Elton John, Tina Turner, and Eric Clapton performing these songs, though I'll agree that their performances aren't quite as good as one feels that they should be. I appreciate the imagery of Pinball Wizard more than I do Elton John's performance of the song itself. So even as I list these things to convince myself that I like the movie more than I do, I'm going to vote No. However, I feel like despite seeing it numerous times in my lifetime, maybe I'm not giving it a fair shake and should look at it with new eyes, keeping the discussion in this episode in mind. It's airing Thursday night on TCM. I'll try to watch it then and perhaps I'll see enough to change my vote later in the week, but I make no promises.

#11 AmandaNumbraOne

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Posted 25 June 2018 - 10:34 PM

Anyone know if Oliver Reed reeled in his awful thoughts about feminism and women’s liberation? Not everything can be blamed on consumption.

Reed is usually my favorite part in most films I’ve seen him in (watched The Devils for the first time in full last year and was blown away). I also find him unbelievably hot, big dude with large features and an unending stare.

This is all to say, yes he’s passed, but I’m bummed about his politics and hope that maybe he turned a corner. Cuz if you’re not into lifting up women, you’re prob anti a lot of things including gay rights and civil rights...human rights. Also he’s been in scenes that are ridiculously homoerotic.

#12 Susan*

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Posted 26 June 2018 - 04:56 AM

I agree with a lot of what Johnny Pomatto said above. I'm not voting unless I decide to re-watch the movie, because it's been more than 10 years since I last saw it. I loved The Who in my teenage years and young adulthood. I grew out of straight up rock music, but I have a lot of residual affection for them. Still Tommy was never one of my favorite albums (concept albums are not to my taste) and I really disliked the movie.

In my teenage and young adulthood years, I was duped by movie and music critics to waste my time and money tracking down movies--especially rock movies--which I almost never enjoyed. Rock music movies are the toughest genre I can think of. The movie usually damages the music. Maybe music movies attract the wrong sort of money and creative people? (Robert Stigwood, I'm looking at you.) Too much money thrown around? Too self-indulgent? People not understanding what made the music good? Maybe I just love music too much and I'm a pain in the ass?

Sometimes you hear about a movie and you're dying to see it and then you can't believe how awful it is. I saw The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover with a friend after seeing rave reviews. I thought it was painful to sit through, and then afterward had my friend telling me how I just didn't understand the symbolism of the colors . . . . I dragged some friends to see Tommy in a theater but at least that time none of my friends tried to tell me I was too stupid to appreciate it. :/

#13 FictionIsntReal

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Posted 26 June 2018 - 04:20 PM

Perhaps Tommy the album deserves a spot in the musical canon for pioneering the rock opera (definitely not the power chord, as Townshend will always give credit to Link Wray), but I don't think the film does. It's more of a curio, serving as a precursor to music videos rather than something that really works as a feature film. Ken Russell is really more excessive than most, but he's got other excessive films which are more his vision rather than a mixture with Townshend's.

I am curious what happened between Amy and MTV. I didn't grow up with cable, so I don't have the same associations with it (and other music video channels).

#14 Crummy Scrimmage

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Posted 27 June 2018 - 12:15 PM

David hit upon the bottom line with this film: it is meant to be seen while high, and preferably in a theater -- and liking the Who's music doesn't hurt. While I enjoy this movie, I felt it was a let-down compared to the album, which I think is fantastic. Tommy's strength is its compositions, and with the exception of Pinball Wizard (which sounds like Elton John was smartly given free reign to do whatever he wanted) and Amazing Journey (which also features some of the most impressive visuals in the movie), these performances just don't stack up to the originals. Nothing wrong with the acting -- Reed is particularly good here -- but the singing performances range from weak to misguided. And for a movie with no spoken dialogue, that's a tough pill to swallow. But I love the unapologetic 70s vibe that Russell sustains, and there is an uneasiness to this film that I'm drawn to.

Does it belong in the Canon? As someone who's never chimed in on this board before and whose opinion is meaningless, sober me says "no" (high me says "sure, why not").

#15 sycasey 2.0

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Posted 27 June 2018 - 02:08 PM

View PostCrummy Scrimmage, on 27 June 2018 - 12:15 PM, said:

Nothing wrong with the acting -- Reed is particularly good here -- but the singing performances range from weak to misguided.


It was pretty obvious that Reed was . . . not a singer.

I did like Ann-Margret though.

#16 Creamy Deluxe

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Posted 29 June 2018 - 08:58 AM

There should a Ken Russell film in the Canon, and if not Tommy then either The Devils or Woman in Love. He was an amazing director that I discovered in my early 20s and everything he did was so different from anything I had seen, I fell in love with his work. Glenda Jackson was right when she lamented after Russell's death that he didn't get the respect he deserved for being an original.

And Nicholas Roeg should have a movie in The Canon also. Another British director with a wild, brilliant directing style. Don't Look Now is definitely canon worthy.

#17 Johnny Pomatto

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Posted 29 June 2018 - 11:33 AM

I just revisited the film, start to finish (oooff) and I still think I have to let my NO vote stand. What it boils down to me is whether or not this is a prime example (good or bad) of an important genre that is underrepresented in The Canon. People call TOMMY (the album and the movie) a rock opera. But I think the idea of a rock opera is a sub-genre at best. There aren't many others that I would categorize it with. Isn't something like this close enough (though inferior to) THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW? Surely we don't need both in The Canon. Perhaps TOMMY should be considered more along the lines of films featuring a band showcasing their own music (such as A HARD DAY'S NIGHT or MRS. BROWN YOU'VE GOT A LOVELY DAUGHTER), but to me it doesn't succeed that well on that front either, with the members of The Who often getting lost in the background, including Roger Daltrey who is a complete blank slate until the final act of the film. I would say that the other musicians upstage them, but from Clapton to Turner, none of them are doing all that great work. To me, this film is about on the level of the abysmal but less frustrating SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEART'S CLUB BAND. Ken Russell really swings for the fences here, and I admire him for that, but to me it misses the mark. I do love Ken Russell though and would love to have him represented in The Canon. WOMEN IN LOVE would be an excellent choice. In terms of his musical catalogue, have you seen THE BOY FRIEND, Amy? I think you would rather enjoy it. It's Russell's tribute to Busby Berkeley. I revisited it this week as well and it's even more fun than I remember it being. Far less subversive than something like TOMMY, but I do feel that it greater succeeds at what it's trying to accomplish. I wish I liked TOMMY. I've tried too many times. I think I'm going to finally give up on it. But I envy its fans and supporters. Just can't count myself among them.

#18 daustin

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Posted 02 July 2018 - 05:24 AM

I think Tommy is a bit of mess, though it has some great moments, so a very soft no. But if you put up Ken Russell's The Devils, which captures all of his insane, vulgar energy in a more focused package, I'm a definite yes.
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