And yet it never does collapse on itself. Anticipated fatigue reaches us - any movie that moves as violently spastic as this one does is bound to drain any viewer that comes across it - but Russell's seemingly chaotic staging is so meticulously chaotic that it maintains its lunacy like a shaken soda about to be opened, with the potential to explode but never actually releasing all its energy in order to jump back to point A. The film is an orgy of musical dementia that retains its dementia with impressive steadiness.
Its hysteria isn't for nothing: "Tommy" is based upon The Who's 1969 rock opera album of the same name, which, in itself, is legendary for its many amenities and its many artistic risks. Its centerpiece is "Pinball Wizard," a classic song that, if you don't already know, tells the story of a young man named Tommy, a deaf, dumb, and blind kid with an inscrutable ability to play a mean game of pinball.
Naturally, the movie is about him (played by The Who's frontman, Roger Daltrey), beginning with his birth in 1945 and ending with his reawakening as a much-worshipped figure of enlightenment in the modern world. "Tommy" is vaguely enwrapped in the need to tell a conventional story - his torrid relationships with his mother (Ann-Margret) and stepfather (Oliver Reed) are indispensable, and his eventual transforming into a wizard of pinball is the very thing that leads the film into territories of ambitious social commentary - but it's so stylistically exorbitant that any attempt it makes at being revelatory or monumental is desultory, to say the least.
Because this is the kind of film that features an Ann-Margret centered song-and-dance sequence that, by its end, leaves her covered in hundreds of pounds of baked beans (I won't bother with an explanation). It's the kind of film that provides its characters with names straight out of its own sort of Wonderland, ranging from The Acid Queen to The Preacher to The Specialist. And it's also the kind of film that involves a subplot revolving around a cult that worships Marilyn Monroe, integrating cameo appearances from Elton John, Tina Turner, Jack Nicholson, and Eric Clapton as if it were to casual and off-the-cuff.
There's a lot going on at all times - all dialogue is sung, and the blue-ribbon soundtrack obsessively permeates the atmosphere - and so our initially vitalized response to "Tommy" quickly sours into blatant burnout. It's magnificently original, expertly acted, and resplendently directed. But it's also so much. It's a hurricane of cinematic benevolence that runs for far too long; while its storyline is deserving of long-winded telling, the druggy energy level is too exhausting for us to want to get there. It's a masterpiece 75% of the time, its tantalization fresher than ever. The pitfalls of its 25% either has to do with its failed attempts at satire (more fun to talk about than to watch) or its terminal Too Much At One Time syndrome. Solidified opinion on either varies.
But it's still a must-watch, mostly because Russell's sweaty aspiration only gets better with age, because the soundtrack really is amazing, and because Margret, not to mention co-stars Reed and the all-too-briefly breathtaking Turner, give unforgettably uninhibited performances. It's a lot to take in. But its unconformity is agelessly pristine, and it does most of what it attempts to do quite well. Just make sure to take a deep breath before the viewing process begins: this isn't your average movie musical.
Lots of famous faces in it. Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Oliver Reed, Elton John, Paul Nicholas, Jack Nicholson, Robert Powell etc. A classic!!
The cast is fantastic and probably a dream team of sorts. You have the great Oliver Reed who plays the evil stepfather. His performance is so caricature and hilarious. People have criticized his singing capabilities but his performance is so great that it doesn't matter.
You also have Ann Margret, Jack Nicholson, Robert Powell, Tina Turner, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Paul Nicholas, Roger Daltry as Tommy and Keith Moon as evil Uncle Ernie. All of these great actors and musicians just add to the films experience.
This is the kind of film you put in and crank up the home theater sound and rock out with. If you don't get that kind of experience out of this then you're probably dead or at the very least, comatose.
A note here about the music in the film vs the album. I actually like the soundtrack to the film a bit better then the original album. It's faster, a little harder edge, a little louder and a couple of more songs then the album. I have both version on my MP3 and you can tell a difference.
If I were doing one-sentence reviews, I would simply write, "What the fuck?" and that would be that. Since I feel the need to write more substantive reviews - what the actual fuck? This film is nuts. The plot is weird and non-sensical, the cinematography is an LSD trip, and the acting is over-blown. That said, Tommy is also a hell of a ride. Consistently engaging, it kept me guessing, and some of the musical numbers are well-choreographed.
Overall ... what the actual fuck?