Saturday, February 17 at 8 pm ET
Tommy, the spiritual journey of a young man suffering from psychosomatic deafness and blindness, first appeared in 1969 as a concept album written primarily by Pete Townshend of The Who. It was the first work labeled a "rock opera," paving the way for such later creations as Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and The Who's own Quadrophenia (1979). Although hailed by many critics as a breakthrough in rock music, it was also condemned by many for what they considered its exploitation of the title character, particularly his sexual abuse at the hands of his Cousin Kevin and Uncle Ernie. As a result, it was banned from BBC Radio and several U.S. stations. It became a hit nonetheless, thanks largely to The Who's performance of selections from it at the Woodstock Festival as recorded in the documentary Woodstock (1970). In addition to performing selections on tour, The Who also participated in two 1972 concert versions in London that featured such guest stars as Rod Stewart, Richie Havens and Ringo Starr.
With the album's success, The Who's booking agent, Robert Stigwood, decided to pursue a film version. Stigwood had started out as a theatrical agent before moving into record production, musical management and filmmaking, making his first splash on screen with Jesus Christ Superstar. Initially, he considered George Lucas as the director, but the recent film school graduate was more interested in developing American Graffiti (1973).
Instead, Stigwood turned to a visionary British film director who had made his name with an extravagant film version of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1969). Russell had started his career with a series of trend-setting musical biographies made for British television, including films on dancer Isadora Duncan and composer Frederick Delius. He had followed Women in Love with an over-the-top biography of Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers (1970) and a pastiche of classic Hollywood musicals, The Boy Friend (1971), starring Twiggy and Tommy Tune.
When Russell's agent first broached the project, however, the director had never even heard of The Who or Tommy. He listened to the album, though, and attended one of the concert performances, which he considered appalling. Nonetheless, he found some parallels between Tommy's life, particularly his rise to pop icon status, and his own work. He had worked on two unproduced screenplays with similar themes and found it ironic that after having his ideas rejected by Hollywood as uncommercial he was now being offered a very commercial property not that different from his earlier ideas.
Russell's first task was working with Townshend to flesh out the original material which was really more of a song cycle than an opera. This included updating the period -- in the original Tommy was born during World War I, but for the film that was moved to World War II -- and changing the trauma triggering his psychosomatic ailments from the murder of the mother's lover to the murder of Tommy's father. This allowed Russell to explore a quasi-incestuous attachment between Tommy and his mother, who would see her late husband in her son. Russell also incorporated ideas from his unproduced screenplays into the script, including a scene set in a church deifying Marilyn Monroe and the sequence in which Tommy's mother destroys a TV set that suddenly bursts forth with a mixture of soap suds, chocolate and baked beans (the baked beans image can also be found on the cover of one of The Who's earlier albums).
Certain casting decisions were givens. The Who's lead singer, Roger Daltrey, would play Tommy, the role he had created on the album, while drummer Keith Moon would re-create his performance as Uncle Ernie. Russell cast two former leading men, Oliver Reed from Women in Love and Robert Powell from Mahler (1974), as the lover and father, respectively. After much urging, Eric Clapton agreed to come out of retirement to play the Preacher. Stigwood vetoed Townshend's choice to play the Pinball Wizard, Tiny Tim. The part was then offered to Rod Stewart, but pop star Elton John talked him out of doing it, then took the role himself. When David Bowie was unavailable to play the Acid Queen, the role went to Tina Turner. Russell had wanted to cast horror star Christopher Lee as the Specialist, but Lee was tied up on location shooting The Man with the Golden Gun(1974). Instead, the role went to Jack Nicholson, who surprised Townshend with his singing.
The film's casting triumph, however, was Ann-Margret as Tommy's mother. After launching her career as a singing ingénue, Margret had moved into sexier roles as Elvis Presley's most famous leading lady, in Viva Las Vegas (1964), but a series of poorly planned sex comedies had sunk her film career. She made a comeback as a character actress in Carnal Knowledge (1971), which brought her an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actress. It was that performance that convinced Stigwood and Russell she could carry off the demanding role of Tommy's mother. Townshend was impressed with her acting, too, but had never heard of her as a musical performer. He was doubly thrilled to learn she could handle the score, and even wrote a new song, "Champagne," for her.
Recording was a trial for Russell, who had only worked on classical scores in the past. He was used to musicians showing up at 9 a.m. and finishing their work by lunchtime. When he started working out the schedule with Townshend, he expected slightly later hours, but was amazed when the musician suggested starting at 4:30 p.m. and then showed up late the first day. Most of the tracks were recorded at night. Russell was concerned that the musicians would expect the same scheduling on the set, but was gratified when they all arrived strictly on time and ready to work every morning.
In addition to studio shots, Russell used locations around England, including the theatre where he had shot much of The Boy Friend, which became the setting for the "Pinball Wizard" sequence, and an amusement pier in Portsmouth where Reed's character seduces Margret. Russell wanted a smoky quality in the pier's dance hall and got that and then some when an electrical fire set the pier on fire. The crew and equipment got to safety, then Russell had them shoot the fire and actually used it in the film.
Another accident didn't make it into the picture. While shooting her big number with the shattered television, baked beans, soap suds and chocolate, Margret reached into the television set and sliced open her hand. Russell carried her to the emergency room, where the wound required 27 stitches. She showed up for work the next day, but after shooting around her bandages, Russell insisted she take time off to make sure the hand healed properly.
Stigwood gave Tommy a gala premiere in New York, complete with a party for 1,000 in the 57th Street subway station, where 3,000 cherry tomatoes on the buffet table spelled out "Tommy." The film got mixed reviews, though many critics considered the material a perfect match for Russell's talents. Even the less favorable reviews, however, had praise for the cast, particularly Daltrey, Turner and Ann-Margret. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby called Ann-Margret the best of an "extravagantly fine" cast, and lauded her for singing and dancing "as if the fate of Western civilization depended upon it." The performance brought her a second Academy Award® nomination, this time for Best Actress, and cemented her transition from sex kitten to serious actress. It didn't hurt that the film went on to earn back more than three times its cost in the U.S. alone, becoming Russell's biggest hit ever.
Producer: Robert Stigwood, Ken Russell
Director and Screenplay: Russell
Based on the musical drama by Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon
Cinematography: Dick Bush, Ronnie Taylor, Robin Lehman
Art Direction: John Clark
Music: Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon
Cast: Ann-Margret (Nora Walker Hobbs), Oliver Reed (Frank Hobbs), Roger Daltrey (Tommy Walker), Elton John (Pinball Wizard), Eric Clapton (Preacher), Jack Nicholson (Specialist), Robert Powell (Capt. Walker), Paul Nicholas (Cousin Kevin), Tina Turner (Acid Queen), Keith Moon (Uncle Ernie).
by Frank Miller