May 152009


Last night, following a very long day of business and pleasure, I got home around 10:15 pm, checked e-mails, confirmed the losing score of the Phillies’ game had not been overturned, and then flipped channels for a spell until I could barely keep awake. Then, just as I was about to call it a day, I saw that Ken Russell‘s Tommy was about to come on! This is one of those train-wreck movies I can’t help but watch whenever it comes on. I was both fascinated and repelled by it when I saw it in the theaters as a kid, and my reactions to the movie have not changed since then on repeated small-screen viewing. I knew from the start that I would pay for staying up an additional hour today—my brain was already starting to throb from overuse—but I rationalized that it had been some time since I saw the opening scenes, with the boy actor as Tommy. Beside, I told myself, it would be good for Rock Town Hall.

I ended up watching through the scenes with the boy and the first, highly influential scene with Roger Daltrey as the deaf, dumb, and blind adults Tommy being taken by his mom, Ann-Margret, to the Marilyn Monroe-worshipping church led by Blooz Minister Eric Clapton. I consider this film highly inspirational on a personal level because Daltrey exemplified what would become one of my most cherished bits of comedy at home: my love for and impersonation of actors acting blind in movies. No offense to our blind Townspeople checking in, but Hollywood really gave you the shaft when it came to a lousy repertoire of approaches to acting blind.

Despite having the same overall impressions, such as my total recall of the deep response I had as a boy to my first taste of Oliver Reed as a symbol of manhood, the passing of time allowed me new observations. For instance, the boy who plays the young Tommy might well have been a young Andy Richter.

A young Andy Richter (see inset) as Tommy?

This morning I remembered Townsman Oats writing something on Tommy, which I wrongly assumed, after checking it and considering running it as a Friday Flashback feature, was positive. There are as many solid arguments for why Tommy, the movie, sucks and may be brought to trial on Rock Crimes, but in my opinion the only honest answer to the question in the title of this post is d) All of the above.

It can be argued that the movie is “good,” for instance, in terms of its artistically nauseating visuals (seemingly the only thing Ken Russell really cares about). I don’t know what Russell was aiming for in his ’70s films, but it seems to me he was taken by the Look of Stanley Kubrick films like 2001 Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange and thought he could match up that visual style with a subtle sense of storytelling informed by the works of Russ Meyer.

The film also can be argued as “good” in the sense that the source material, the Tommy album, really isn’t that good. Imagine how much worse the film could have been without the visuals of Russell and the archetypal bad marriage dynamic of Oliver Reed and Ann-Margret? Imagine how much worse the film could have been had it wasted the talents of, say, Peter Sellers, in the Tommy role? Instead, the movie is just good enough to keep your attention and keep you laughing.

And the laughter gets to all the obvious arguments about why the movie is definitely both “good-bad” and plain old bad. If you’re brave enough to step forward and take a shot at this, why don’t you cite one example each from the film that satisfy the criteria of the following responses to this film that any honest viewer is likely to have:

  • Scene in which the movie can be considered “good”:
  • Scene in which the movie can be considered “good-bad”:
  • Scene in which the movie is undeniably “bad”:

I look forward to your well-considered responses.


  20 Responses to “Tommy (the Movie): a) Good, b) Good-Bad, c) Bad, d) All of the Above?”

  1. * Scene in which the movie can be considered “good”: Elton John singing “Pinball Wizard”

    * Scene in which the movie can be considered “good-bad”: “I’m Free”

    * Scene in which the movie is undeniably “bad”: Everything else

  2. BigSteve

    You used to see Elton’s scene as a music video. It’s amusing enough, but basically I consider all Ken Russell films after Women in Love to be abominations, not even good-bad.

  3. For what it’s worth, the clips I’ve seen of Lisztomania make Tommy look like a Jim Jarmusch movie.

  4. Mr. Moderator

    I actually rented Lisztomania years ago but I couldn’t make it through the whole thing without fast forwarding in hopes of finding especially bad scenes.

    Anyone else willing to step forward and note worthwhile scenes in Tommy, scenes that actually approach GOOD? I don’t want to list them all and steal you of your thunder.

  5. hrrundivbakshi

    GOOD: Elton as the Wizard
    GOOD: Ann-Margret coated in baked beans

    BAD: Everything else

    On the topic of Ken Russell movies, I chanced my way into a theater screening of “Lair of the White Worm,” and LOVED it.

  6. Mr. Moderator

    Lair of the White Worm is a rare Russell movie beside Tommy I remember seeing and not hating. If can’t remember if that was only because of the visuals and whatever good-looking woman was on screen.

  7. I remember being a kid and wandering on my parents watching this on cable TV in the early 80s. I saw the “Acid Queen” segment and was naturally horrified (as young kids are). I saw it years later and am mixed on the whole thing. Like the music, hate the movie? I honestly don’t know how I feel about this one. I think I think it’s bad, but I manage to watch (like a train wreck) every time. Plus I own the DVD. I think that has more to do with my gay PT love than anything else.


  8. PS–I did get off work one afternoon to find that daughter had pilfered my DVDs and watched this (she’s 11) because she likes Tommy (the music). She didn’t seem too traumatized and I was probably a little too proud of her.


  9. It’s not even really good in a bad way, like say, Roadhouse, a movie which, by the way, took a role that could have gone to a sighted actor and gave it to the blind guy. I can never not watch that movie when it comes on.

  10. Lair of the White Worm. Now there’s a movie I’d rather talk about. Campy and over the top and energetic. Based on a Bram Stoker novel too, although the book ain’t quite the classic that Dracula is.

  11. Mr. Moderator

    That’s all fine and dandy, mwall and cdm (by the way, my friend, as much as I love Roadhouse, Tommy has plenty of good-bad gems), but let’s not pass up opportunities to give credit where credit is due. How about that scene where Tommy is cured and he is welcoming people to his own healing camp? There’s a lot of green in this sequence – his parents may be wearing green uniforms, if memory serves. Daltry’s is prancing about some big pinballs or boulders. Man, that’s a loving, healing moment for a solid 60 seconds before the wheels start coming of the tracks again!

  12. I now wish there was a Tommy movie starring Roadhouse-era Swayze in the title role.

  13. A deaf, dumb and blind kid who overcomes his childhood traumas and goes on to kicks ass as a bouncer in hilllbilly bars? Featuring Oliver Reed singing Jeff Healy songs? Why, I’d pay top dollar to see that.

  14. Mr. Moderator

    OK, you guys have sold me on a possible remake of Tommy. Who plays the Sam Elliott character? Who gets the Ben Gazzarra role? Can we cast Willie Nelson as Red?

  15. Mr. Moderator

    Can we trade the casts of Tommy and Road House – even up? After reassigning cast members to their new roles, which remake is better, or worse better, as may be the realistic expectation?

    Daltry and Swayze obviously take over each other’s roles. The outcome of their switch may be a push. After that, who gets what role and how do they perform in their new movies?

    If you need a reminder of who’s who and what they play, here’s the key cast of Tommy (

    Cast (in credits order) verified as complete

    Oliver Reed…Frank Hobbs
    Ann-Margret … Nora Walker
    Roger Daltrey … Tommy Walker
    Elton John … Local Lad
    Eric Clapton … The Preacher
    John Entwistle … Himself
    Keith Moon … Uncle Ernie
    Paul Nicholas … Cousin Kevin
    Jack Nicholson … The Specialist
    Robert Powell … Captain Walker
    Pete Townshend … Himself
    Tina Turner … The Acid Queen
    Arthur Brown … The Priest
    Victoria Russell … Sally Simpson
    Ben Aris … Reverend Simpson
    Mary Holland … Mrs. Simpson
    Gary Rich … Rock Musician
    Dick Allan … President Black Angels
    Barry Winch … Young Tommy

    …and here’s the key cast of Road House (

    Cast (in credits order) verified as complete

    Patrick Swayze … Dalton
    Kelly Lynch … Doc
    Sam Elliott … Wade Garrett
    Ben Gazzara … Brad Wesley
    Marshall R. Teague … Jimmy (as Marshall Teague)
    Julie Michaels … Denise
    Red West … Red Webster
    Sunshine Parker … Emmet (as ‘Sunshine’ Parker)
    Jeff Healey … Cody
    Kevin Tighe … Tilghman
    John Doe … Pat McGurn

    Get to it, geniuses!

  16. saturnismine

    i never thought the music on tommy was as bad as rth makes it out to be.

    the recording is thin (and in many places, incomplete, or so they claim).

    i’d love to hear that thing live, from the era in which it was recorded. the who were probably one of the most brutal bands of the festival / early arena era, ca. 69 – 72, and they were playing the living fuck out of all their songs at the time, while often giving tommy the full treatment.

    yeah, the concept’s a little out of left field, but i think it’s pretty cool, the whole idea of writing a series of songs that take the listener from the idea of not being able to relate to the world around you to feeling like your soul has been liberated, with the transition from one phase to hte other being mediated by pop culture (marilyn monroe, pinball, etc.).

    ultimately, i think it *does* fail, because townshend let the concept overwhelm the songwriting. but where there are songs, they’re quite a pleasure to me.

    okay…anyway…i always hated the movie because it’s such a poor reflection of what those tunes mean when i just listen to hte original album, that i would much rather they never made a movie.

    the playing and arrangements on the soundttack are terrible (although i do like the up front movie vocal mix), and yeah, ken russel’s choices really blow.

    the only scene that ever mattered to me was “i’m free,” which is so bad…so terribly terribly bad, that it’s good.

    The only scene that

  17. On a side note, but related, I did break down and buy that Smithereens Play Tommy. It’s tribute! I suppose it’s cool to hear a band playing a note-for-note copy but is this absolutely neccesary? I feel stupid for spending cash on this. Especially when there’s 1000 other things I should be buying…


  18. BigSteve

    Don’t feel bad, TB, I bought Phish Play Quadrophenia Live. It’s impressive, but that’s not the same thing as good, or worth good money.

  19. I know what you mean, Steve. I know what’s bugging me is the fact that I did NOT buy it on Monday because in the back of my mind I knew this was a waste of time. So. What do I do? I turn around a few days laters and cough up the bucks. Listen to half of it and say, “Man, this sounds like Tommy. Good for them.”

    Concerning Phish: At least it was alive setting. As I understand it, the band would allow their fans to vote and for the Halloween shows, Phish would be aonther band. The first year it was Quad, then The White Album. I think the last year the band just decided to do Talking Heads mainly because they were tired of the fans voting on lengthy double albums. The point I’m making is this: They were having fun doing a favorite record for fans. It was probably never intended to be a commercial release. This Smithereens thing is a studio album (!). I mean, it seems like if you are going to spend time and money in a studio, much the the effort to release it, you would record your own material.

    This probably taps into my own belief about cover songs, but I’d rather just screw up my own stuff rather screwing up someone else’s. I guess with The Smithereens, it’s all about, “Look! We love The Who. We can recreate what The Who did in honor of the 40th anniversary!” A friend of mine did this very thing with a couple of his favorite albums. It’s an odd way of honoring something. I mean, I adore Pet Sounds, but I’m not planning on recording my own version of it for commercial release. I’d rather just hear the record.

    And I’m not talking about tribute albums. Those have an interesting place.

    Sorry for the small rant there…


  20. The interesting thing to me about these latest Smithereens releases is what it says about their sales power. They’ve now done two Beatles albums and this Tommy one. I can only assume that they do bigger numbers on these than on a disc of their own material. Doesn’t make much sense to me.

    But what do I know; the only Smithereens CD I have, I bought because they did a cover of Girl Don’t Tell Me, my all time favorite Beach Boys song.

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