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Tommy (Blu-ray Review)

6 Sep, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 9/7
Sony Pictures
$24.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Ann-Margaret, Roger Daltrey, Oliver Reed.

Any movie that drenches Ann-Margret in baked beans that burst out of a busted TV screen isn’t just any old collection of auteur antics. This is why I remain intrigued by, and even somewhat sympathetic to, Ken Russell’s exhausting attempt to sustain The Who’s rock opera for almost two hours of screen time, even though the result gets on my nerves and sometimes seems to be the reason the fast-forward button and chapter stops were invented.

This 35th Anniversary edition restores the “Quintaphonic” sound utilized for the film’s big city engagements, an offshoot of relatively short-lived Quadraphonic sound and a kind of surround-sound-in-the-round format utilized on this film only. As rendered, the sinus-clearing orchestrations occasionally smother the singing here (though not particularly on any numbers that matter) — yet because of it, the movie did grab me more than it ever has since I saw it during the initial release. This rendering re-raises a question that continually bugs me: How much lost home-market revenue has there been over (by now) decades because so many movies after the mid-1950s were recorded in mono when they could have been recorded in stereo? Or in less common cases, as here, released with a more sophisticated track that existed.

A late film critic friend of mine who didn’t like Russell’s films used to chide what he called the director’s “empty images,” but I always thought Russell’s style was more a case of a resourceful filmmaker fatally disinclined to give his storytelling any room to breathe. (His 1970 breakthrough Women in Love lingers in the mind as an exception, but maybe it’s time to revisit Russell’s entire oeuvre for a refresher, though this strikes me as something akin to abusing pills.) To walk a mile in his shoes, though, let’s say that Tommy producer Robert Stigwood has hired you to make a film in the Russell style (then a commercial plus) — which means you don’t have a whole lot of artistic choices beyond finding the visual equivalent of what The Who have set down in their lyrics about the traumatized title youth and coming pinball wizard.

But oh, man, does Russell ever run Ann-Margret through the ringer here, spurring an operatic performance that one has to concede is at least theoretically appropriate by the built-in rock-opera definition. It is, however, overacting in cruel combat with an even crueler camera, notwithstanding the actress’s eventual ’75 Oscar nomination, which was quite a contrast to winner Louise Fletcher’s coolly and calmly sociopathic turn in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Yes, there’s a certain built-in blowsiness to A-M’s single-mom character, who is forced by circumstances to snuggle up to a meal-ticket creep played by Oliver Reed at his sleaziest. This said, the movie never avoids a way to picture the actress at her most unattractive and even camp-figure grotesque (in close-ups, no less). Compare this to how attractive A-M was capable of looking three years later in Richard Attenborough’s Magic.

What’s more, she has the burden of carrying the early going when the music is at its weakest. If you doubt this, see what a jolt the movie gets — and nearly a full half-an-hour in — when Eric Clapton and some Who friends perform Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight” to the Blind in a twisted religious rally that makes memorable iconographic use of Marilyn Monroe and that white 7 Year Itch dress that then-husband Joe DiMaggio disliked so much. (Joe’s vote was pretty well canceled by the globe’s other males). Immediately following, sans any momentary roadside rest stop, is the Tina Turner “Acid Queen” number – less of a grabber than “Eyesight” yet by virtue of the “it is what it is” consideration, a lot more sizzling than vocals that have to be carried by Ann-Margret and Reed.

From here on out, the movie is a kind of hit-and-miss affair, its audio-visual “hits” including Elton John’s “Pinball Wizard” and Roger Daltrey (as the grown-up Tommy, now liberated) swimming in almost competitive style to “I’m Free.” My own favorite (both on the album and in the movie, “Eyesight” possibly excepted) is the raucous Sally Simpson number, featuring Russell’s daughter Victoria — a scene that really looks like a precursor to MTV. This reminds me: has anyone ever opined a list of vintage movie rock numbers that were MTV before MTV? The first one that really hits me in the face is the Beatles/Richard Lester “Ticket to Ride” classic from 1965’s Help!, especially when musical notes get plunked onto outdoor telephone wires (a visual stroke so inspired that it makes me moan with glee). But I digress.

Russell was a workhorse in the first half of the ’70s, and depending on what you think of 1980’s Altered States (last time I checked, I still voted guilty-pleasure “pro”), Tommy represented some kind of peak in terms of the director getting to make “event” movies. Lisztomania (Daltrey again) followed in ’75 with Valentino two years later, and if ever there was a pair to test one’s fan base, these were it. Tommy at least has its moments and certainly avoided the traps that still give the 1978 movie of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band the ability to stop conversations by its mere mention.

But even setting aside Blu-ray considerations, standard DVD still has a long way to go toward giving Russell his due. Not only is the Image release of Mahler release out of print: The Music Lovers, The Devils and Savage Messiah have never seen an official release — and Messiah has all that Helen Mirren nudity from those frisky formative years. Tommy, can you see her? Well, he’d probably like to.

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