Sunday, April 13, 2014



Shooting on the Riviera did not take long, and soon my costars and I were ensconced in a caravan of somewhat substandard motor homes, heading along the Mediterranean coast from France to Italy. We had a number of important sequences to do there in order to give Goodfollies, with its lady mobster theme, a sense of the old country and some cultural context. Our first stop was Pisa, where we had a number of complicated effects shots involving the famous leaning tower.

For a musical number late in the film, in which my character, Toni Soprano, finally tells off her mother Lydia (played by that legend of the silent screen, Norma Desmond), Toni invokes the spirit of the great Galileo. In this sequence, Galileo (a charming little cameo from my dear, dear friend Joel Grey) drops Lydia and a ten pound lead ball from the top of the tower at the same time to see which item will hit the ground first. As Lydia falls through the air, Toni does a fabulous little tap solo in the piazza beneath, catching the lead weight after a complicated series of buck and wing maneuvers while Lydia hits with a thud. As it's a dream sequence, Lydia isn't really hurt but it does make for an arresting image. Norma was ever so difficult about getting the shots we needed. Despite all of the safety harnesses and off camera grips, she howled every time we threw her off that blasted tower. We finally got it right on take eighty seven.

I was a frazzled bundle of nerves following the day's shooting, but was interested in keeping myself on a bit of a musical high. Poking through my unreviewed DVDs, I happened across Ken Russell's 1975 film version of The Who's rock opera, Tommy with Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed and Roger Daltrey. I decided it would be a perfect ending to the day as it was chock full of music, and had, if I remembered correctly several scenes set in churches (although I could not remember whether anyone was flung from the bell tower - the last film I remember that from was Braveheart).

Tommy started life in the late 1960s as a cycle of songs, predominantly by the Who's Pete Townsend, covering the life of a young man, struck psychosomatically deaf, dumb and blind by childhood trauma and his rise to messianic status. The Who recorded the songs as a concept/concert album in 1969 (widely regarded as one of the finest rock albums of all time) and some tentative concert stagings of the piece were undertaken in England and America. The success of the rock musicals Hair and Jesus Christ, Superstar furthered interest in the piece and producer Robert Stigwood, after the success of the film version of Jesus Christ, Superstar, decided that Tommy would be his next project. Pete Townsend was hired to reshape the material into a more coherent story form, eliminating the need for any spoken dialogue scenes, and Enfant terrible director Ken Russell was brought in to give the project visual life.

Tommy tells the story of the titular young man (Roger Daltrey of The Who). As the film opens, we meet his loving parents Nora (Ann-Margret) and Captain Walker (Robert Powell) as they share an idyll in the English Lake District. Soon , Captain Walker is summoned to the call of duty in World War II and is apparently shot down and killed. Nora gives birth to their son and gets on with her life. As time goes on, now six year old Tommy (Barry Winch) and his mum head off to a holiday camp where she meets Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed), one of the camp staff. One thing leads to another and Nora and Frank settle down together. Captain Walker takes this inopportune moment to reappear (where he's been for the last six or so years is not explained) and Frank kills him. Tommy witnesses this and, as Nora and Frank urge him that "He didn't see it, he didn't hear it, he won't tell no one ever in his life", is struck psychosomatically blind deaf and dumb.

Tommy grows to adulthood and his mother attempts to have him cured through religion (at a church involving worship of Marilyn Monroe where Eric Clapton is the preacher), a specialist (a campy singing Jack Nicholson), the junkie prostitute the Acid Queen (a sensational Tina Turner) or just leaves him in the hands of abusive relatives (Paul Nicholas as cousin Kevin and a deliciously dirty Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie). Tommy finally finds his calling, however, when he discovers pinball, defeating the Pinball Wizard (Elton John in very big shoes). He eventually breaks free of his locked in state, sets himself up as a semi-mystical religious messiah who is at first adored, then hated and dethroned. Everything eventually comes full circle.

The film is a surreal, psychedelic, audio-visual spectacle which, like most of Ken Russell's films, will leave an audience divided into love it or hate it camps. Ken Russell, like current director Baz Luhrmann, never met a bit of visual excess he didn't like and Tommy is, in many ways, somewhat similar to Moulin Rouge. The film has faded somewhat from the cultural radar screen, like much else from the 1970s, but it remains a seminal influence on today's film makers. In 1975, when the film was made, there was no MTV, no music video, and no visual language for transforming rock music from a strictly audio experience to an audio-visual one. Russell, with this film, almost single handedly paved the way for MTV and all of its cultural offshoots by creating a certain visual style and look that could be married to music of this genre. His use of color, heightened reality, surreal imagery, garish costuming, familiar iconography from the visual arts, and tying visual cues to particular emotional feelings was unprecedented. For example, the use of the cross/crucifixion image and the use of war memorial poppies as recurring visual motifs.

The performances range from the greatish (Ann-Margret) to the arch (Jack Nicholson) to the barely competent (Roger Daltrey). Most of the roles are one song cameos and, as long as they're given to singers, they work. Tina Turner is unforgettable with her vibrator thighs and long false eyelashes. Eric Clapton can't act worth a damn, but he knows how to sing and sell his song, Eyesight to the Blind. Elton John has one expression, petulant - it hasn't changed in thirty years but, like Clapton, knows how to handle the material musically with the hit Pinball Wizard. Ann-Margret comes off the best of the principals. She's helped by the flamboyant and outrageous costumes of Shirley Russell (Mrs. Ken). Her voice isn't a rock voice but she's a knockout and gets some raw emotion into her numbers. Oliver Reed looks great as Frank and pulls off the character. He can't sing, however, and his verses are best viewed with the sound turned down low. Roger Daltrey, in the central role, spends the first half of the film catatonic. When he wakes up later in the movie, he's barely more animated. Fortunately, he can sing the music and he looks great. The camera loves him.

Tommy is a film that needs to be seen and experienced and truly defies description. It's also a hoot to look at all of the 70s concepts of high fashion clothing and decor. The DVD captures the film in all of its wide screen glory. It has two sound options. Two track stereo and the original quintaphonic recording remastered for Dolby surround. I definitely recommend the latter. While the sound is all there, it hasn't been re-engineered as carefully as some other older releases and it doesn't blow your socks off the way you really want it to.

Munitions factory. Jungle print dresses. War memorial. Singing maternity nurses. Working class jumping jacks. Christmas cracker hats. Plaster Marilyn. Bathroom torture. Soap bubble dancing. Baked beans rolling. Chocolate sauce bathing. Howling crowds. Frankenstein rock star. Gas masked chorines.

No comments:

Post a Comment