This famous old adaptation of a bunch of the Who’s famous music went by before I was old enough to go see it, and then of course, it was sort of lost to memory. In retrospect, having seen it for the first time yesterday, I have to admit that I was somewhat disappointed. I should probably step back and give the thing a break, it being forty-five years since its creation and it being entirely a musical, there is no non-song dialog. It was bound to run up against my rejection of “rock opera” as a genre. Also, not a lot of the music is purely what you’d call rock, sure, there are the classic Who tunes, but aside from the handful of those well worn and very comfortable slippers, too much of the music is sort of used to accompany exposition, and much of that exposition is plainly banal. The casting is pretty damned good, and Keith Moon really shows himself to be a quality on-camera presence right along side amazing actors like Ann-Margaret (Kitten With a Whip!) and Oliver Reed are really enjoyable.
Let’s get to the story, one we almost all know, because preprogrammed radio and streaming services play “Pinball Wizard” probably every few hours (it’s possible that around the world, along with a dozen other perennial money-makers (“Stairway to Heaven”, “We Are the Champions”, “Hotel California” . . . etc) the song is never actually not playing–somewhere) the story of the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball” is familiar to us. And while I never seemed to really require a backstory and a complete trajectory for the said pinball champ, folks seemed to think it a great idea to create a full on movie adaptation, involving a traumatized kid who looses his dad in the war (this familiar to the Boomers, of course, and the Brits were more firmly aware of class and the abuses of national service, and the damages wrought by the deadly folly of it), played by a staring Daltrey, who eventually kind of takes on the role of a religious leader.
Throughout the film we’re treated to some awkward posturing by Reed and Ann-Margaret as well as Icons like Jack Nicholson (singing!) and looking more menacing then he’s ever looked. The thing is, most of the songstering isn’t that compelling. I grew up hearing Jesus Christ Superstar over and over again, and while my folks and family were never religious, the story and the music were charismatic enough to create an enjoyment of the material. Though the whipping scene terrified me as a youngster, it was used to great effect by a local Providence, RI, avant-garde rock act called Holy Cow (who I used to see occasionally especially since I was a musician in the scene as well – they were really good!) and only then did the sequence seem to be given a wholly different life. And of course, The Wall, much later on was an absolutely mind-blowing film, seemingly perfect fit for the double album of material by Pink Floyd. They also had the added experience of having had their original lead-singer, to put it blandly, lose his mind.
The trouble with Tommy, despite all it’s awards and acclaim, is that it’s not really a suitable movie-length story, and feels a bit ad hoc. Of course, if I were talking to Townsend I would put this some other way, as I’m rather in awe of his and The Who’s multiple accomplishments. I would have, frankly, much rather had a simple concert film of them performing the album than this pile of Ann-Margaret passion play with Reed the careless lout of a new hubby. How can I put this any differently? It’s not an interesting story. It’s less interesting to watch the parents of Tommy than it is to watch Tommy himself. Daltrey puts in some impressive physical performances that sometimes look quite dangerous! His powerful blue-eyes provide enough of the impetus to for the audience to keep wondering what’s next, but the story continually seems to want to squeeze the adults for more tomfoolery (see what I did there?). A few moments of Tommy running and cartwheeling to the song “I’m Free” switch the motif so solidly that we’re ready to see the young man enter into a role as a novel youth leader (in fact, the later Pink Floyd film would have much the same extended philosophical dilemma of unprepared youth thrust into a position of overwhelming attentive responsibility). Shit we’d like to see him do or become basically anything, an astronaut, a circus clown or a rock and roll singer would do just fine!
I’ve read that Tommy’s biological father isn’t dead, but I didn’t receive that message. Though, through this fantasy, not too many messages are really possible. It comes across as a one off joke that no matter how elaborated isn’t really worth the power of Townsend’s efforts. It’s fun to see them, and Clapton as a guitar-playing priest, and Elton John carrying his sequence as Pinball Wizard in the biggest pair of boots ever (perfect for him), and the gorgeous and vibrant Tina Turner as “the Acid Queen” whatever that means. All are moments that make the film worth looking at once, but, in the end you wont’ be satisfied (if you’re like me) by the lack of moment or heart.
It’s ON prime for a reasonable four bucks, and worth some of the star performances, but I think you’ll find the film as a whole just feels awkward. Oliver Reed as well as Moony (not long for this world) seem to be bringing a comic attitude that perhaps should have been played to more.