I do not know if it is possible to make a good film from The Who’s rock opera Tommy, but I do know that Ken Russell has not done it. The film has invention, some riveting moments and a consistently leering glitz. It just never convinces that it has any reason to exist beyond the fact that the opera was there. Presumably a film just had to be made from it.
Of course, it did not and perhaps should not. If you are not particularly fond of the music, you are unlikely to find much in the film to compensate. That is one of the problems with rock: you either like it, or you don’t, or rather, you either “get it” or you don’t. If not, you are likely to be dismissed by fans ready to put down any criticism with whatever term of amused condescension is currently hip. While music generally is difficult to discuss rationally, the indulgent excesses, personal identification and tribalism endemic to rock make it worse.
Part of the problem is that Tommy’s story is such an unappetizing mix of grimy realism (Tommy as victim of child abuse), jejune social commentary (people worshiping pop idols as saviors) and sheer grotesquerie (such as the snakes slithering out of a skeleton during “Acid Queen”). It seems to be stumbling over itself to wow us with a Big Statement. It hits a target occasionally: Tina Turner’s gyrations as the acid queen and Elton John’s frenzied “Pinball Wizard” juice things up considerably and Roger Daltrey gives the concluding “Listening to You” an emotional intensity lacking in most of the film.
That lack is odd. Given his penchant for hyperbole, Russell offered at least a chance of doing something interesting with the material. And yet, showy as his trademark excess is, his efforts often feel forced, as if he is trying to prove his R&R credentials by being even more garish than usual. The material does not cooperate; it mostly seems just outside his grasp. His expulsive gestures are all over the map even, Heaven forbid, bordering on the academic. “Bernie’s Holiday Camp,” for example, feels like a familiar trip through a British working class milieu despite heavy comedy and rather lame musical touches. Worse, some bits, such as Ann Margaret’s rolling and writhing in suds, chocolate and baked beans, feel as if Russell were trying too hard, out outraging himself but unable to think of anything even remotely appropriate.
Perhaps there are fans of the opera with cogent arguments for it and with equally reasonable criticism of the film. I would love to read it as proof that rock ’n’ roll does not require putting critical faculties on hold. For myself, I cannot help feeling that the problems with Tommy the film start with Tommy the opera. Both are uneven collections of flashy flourishes without a unifying purpose.