Captain Walker (Robert Powell) and his new wife Nora (Ann-Margret) enjoyed an idyllic marriage at first, but then events intervened that would drive them apart: World War Two. After stumbling through the ruins of Blitz-hit London, Walker was forced to say goodbye to his spouse and go off to war as a bomber pilot, and tragically he went missing in action. Nora was left pregnant and soon a widowed single mother, so had mixed feelings at the end of the conflict, but one summer she decided to take her child, Tommy (Barry Winch), to Bernie's Holiday Camp. There she would meet Frank (Oliver Reed), a defining influence in Tommy's life when he seduced his mother...
The Who's rock opera Tommy is possibly one of the most famous concept albums of all time, so this being the nineteen-seventies, a decade of experimentation, it was thought that Ken Russell would be just the chap to fashion a film from Pete Townshend's music. And in a way, he was the perfect choice as the result was noisy, colourful and most of all queasy, an ideally faithful adaptation that attempts, and to some extent succeeds, in overwhelming the audience with its barrage of sound and vision, aspects that are ironically denied its lead character for much of the film.
This is because Tommy is the deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball, and the reason he's struck so is that he witnesses Frank killing his father, who in this version hadn't died in the war but has made his way back home to burst in on his wife and her new partner. There's a scuffle and the Captain is killed - we never find out what happens to the body or if there are any police involved, it's just a plot point like so many that stand without believable implications. This can be excused as the rock opera works in a heightened level of reality, and every story element is there to keep us hurtling towards the next song.
Tommy grows up fast, as by the time he's supposedly a teenager, he's played by Roger Daltrey who looks the same age as Nora and Frank. A certain suspension of disbelief is necessary, but you couldn't have the film without Daltrey in the lead role I guess. He's not the only music star to appear, as the movie is littered with guest stars: Eric Clapton appears as a plot-foreshadowing evangelist who fails to heal Tommy at the feet of a Marilyn Monroe effigy, Jack Nicholson - singing (in tune) in an English accent - is a doctor with similar lack of success, Elton John sings "Pinball Wizard" with enormous boots on and Tina Turner is the Acid Queen who takes Tommy on a nightmarish trip.
How you separate that particular nightmarish trip from the tone of the rest of the film is up to you, as overall there's something inescapably headachey about the whole project. Excess was probably the only way to match the music, and it is vivid and memorable throughout, yet could you honestly say you were enjoying yourself? Humour is present, but it's of the nature of Keith Moon enthusiastically performing the pederast Uncle Ernie part, i.e., more offputting than funny. Spectacle is the order of the day, as for example we see Ann-Margret swamped in baked beans spouting from a television set once Tommy makes it big as a celebrity. What Townshend and Russell are saying about the cult of personality as Tommy becomes an evangelist himself, complete with his own holiday camp, is unclear and you're left impressed by the staging, if probably not too keen on sitting through the film again in a hurry. It wears you out.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.