Filmmaker Ken Russell died last week. Most of his work will fade into obscurity save the film Tommy which is, of course, a music version of the album of the same name by The Who. Likewise, I think much of the work of The Who will fade into obscurity, save for a handful of songs preserved by the power of sing-a-long video games and lyrics oft-quoted by journalists (e.g. “Meet the new boss,” and others).
But in Tommy it all came together. Up to the edge, over the top, and beyond, it somehow all works, telling a sort of Christ story with pinball as its touchstone.
There is so much to like in the film, so many ideas that must have sounded ludicrous (and stupid) on paper, and still sound so if written or spoken of today, but, damn, there it is in my mind. Scene after scene. The quivering lip of Tina Turner, the fish-eye shot–held a few beats too long (so pleased Russell must have been with himself)–of Elton John with his big shoes, the crowd chanting and swaying behind, Jack Nicholson’s doctor. Goofy stuff at one level, the level of most films, but genius on another, where it matters.
Here’s the ending and one detail I want to draw your attention to. Tommy, perfectly embodied by The Who’s lead singer Roger Daltry, is free at last, climbing the mountain quite literally. As he reaches the top, as he approaches the sunlight and the camera, the studio-recorded vocals fade away for a second or two and Daltry sings live to the camera. Most viewers don’t seem to notice, but it is the sort little thing that makes all the difference.