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Posts Tagged ‘Ken Russell’

My last memory of the director Ken Russell, prior to hearing of his death, was of his making some very ungenerous comments about Shaun of the Dead in the year’s end review issue of The Guardian, in what was supposedly a feature where the great and the good talked about their favourite films and books and so on of the year just ending. This struck me as a rather mean thing to do, especially coming from someone whose own films – the ones I’d seen, anyway – often seemed inclined to be tacky and filled with a tendency towards look-at-me provocativeness.

Then again, I’d mostly seen late period Russell – The Lair of the White Worm and Gothic, in particular, though the BBC ran a weekend of programming about censorship in which The Devils got shown, and I watched that then (along with Beat Girl and a few other things, not that it matters). People whose opinions I usually respect like Mark Kermode do have a lot of time for Russell and his films, so I probably need to give him another chance.

Spurring me on in this is the fact I watched his 1975 film Tommy the other day, mainly because it was on Netflix and I fancied a break from horror movies. The number of older films on Netflix seems to have declined in recent years (boo), replaced by those usually-dull bits of product marked with a red N on the choice screen, so one should make the most of them while they’re still there.

I’d actually seen bit of Tommy before, round about the same time as The Devils (Channel 4 did a weekend of programming about glam rock – themed weekends were a bit of a thing back in the mid 1990s) – but my main memories were of two other utterly dreadful movies that also got rolled out, Side by Side and Never Too Old to Rock. (If I ever feel in the need for a spot of psychic self-flagellation I’ll go back and watch some of these films again.) Whether the Who, who made the album the film was based on, actually count as a glam rock band I’m a bit uncertain about, but there is definitely a touch of the theatrical and operatic about the film (not least in the way it is sung-through).

Not being all that familiar with Tommy, as noted, I was a bit surprised by how star-studded it turned out to be. For instance, after the faintly confusing opening credits (A Film by Ken Russell – Tommy – by the Who) we initially meet Captain Walker, a heroic RAF bomber pilot, on his honeymoon in the north of England. He and his lovely wife Norah are pictured frolicking energetically in a mountain stream together (to which my reaction was primarily ‘that must have been bloody cold’ – it wouldn’t have left me in the mood, certainly). They are played by Robert Powell and Ann-Margret.

However, tragedy strikes when Walker’s plane is shot down, and his son is seemingly born fatherless (on VE Day no less). But Norah does the best for young Tommy, and while on a trip to a holiday camp she falls in with Frank (Oliver Reed under a resplendent DA hairstyle – come to think of it, he’s in Beat Girl, too), who’s clearly a bit of a dodgy character. Well, Frank and Nora get hitched, and things seem to be looking up for the family.

Until, one night, Captain Walker returns, badly scarred, having survived the plane crash after all. He is understandably put out, firstly to find his wife shacked up with Oliver Reed, and secondly when the couple panic and murder him. Tommy witnesses this, and his mother and stepfather scream at him telling he didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything, and can’t say anything.

Well, obviously, the shock of this sends Tommy into a sort of catatonic trance where he is almost completely oblivious to the outside world. Various attempts at a cure, including faith healing and psychedelic drugs administered by scary prostitutes, come to nothing, and the grown Tommy (Roger Daltrey) has a generally terrible time with the highly unsuitable babysitters (mostly sadists and child molesters from the look of things) he is left with. But a chance of salvation comes when he discovers an unlikely gift for playing pinball machines…

As you can perhaps already tell, studied naturalism and an entirely coherent plot are not amongst Tommy’s strengths as a film. Much of the story you kind of have to accept, and in the case of some of the closing scenes of the film, actually decide for yourself what’s actually going on. This is not normally the hallmark of a particularly good cinematic experience.

However, Tommy really does work as a film, mainly because of the tag-team combination of Russell’s images and Pete Townshend’s music, which come together to remarkable effect. There’s a pop-art surrealism to the best sequences of the film which is immensely striking and memorable – perhaps the most famous of these is the ‘Pinball Wizard’ scene, in which Elton John’s tremendous performance of a belting song is enhanced by the fact he’s wearing six-foot-tall boots. Even when the music isn’t quite so memorable, Russell can be relied upon to keep things visually interesting. The climax of the film, in which Daltrey swims oceans, scrambles up streams, and finally climbs a mountain, singing most of the way as the almost-devotional anthem ‘Listening to You’ builds around him (and, incidentally, demonstrating that he possesses one of the great rock voices) is another remarkably intense and powerful piece of work.

Set against this I suppose we must acknowledge the film’s occasional excesses and excursions into actual silliness – I’m thinking of the scene in which Ann-Margret rolls around on the floor covered in baked beans and melted chocolate, and the general unravelling of the narrative once Tommy regains his senses and voice: Daltrey takes every opportunity to get his shirt off, while travelling the country by hang-glider preaching his message of enlightenment through sensory deprivation and pinball.

It also does not appear to be the case that the words ‘Good, but take it down a notch or two’ were in Russell’s vocabulary while directing some of the performers. Some of them do indeed turn up and do good, restrained work – Eric Clapton seems rather lugubrious during his solo, while Jack Nicholson turns up and gives an impressive demonstration of how to steal a scene from Oliver Reed – but others, frankly, have all the dials turned up well past 10.  Tina Turner spends most of her screen-time maniacally screeching straight down the camera lens, which is a bit unsettling if you’re not expecting it (and maybe even if you are – it kind of put me in mind of Jennifer Hudson in Cats).

But on the whole it is hugely entertaining, thrilling, visually-interesting stuff. Apparently Russell made a few changes to the storyline implied by the original album, most of which seem quite wise to me, and found a way to make a film about a topic he’d been interested in for a while – spiritual leaders who turn out to be deeply flawed individuals. The film is provocative about religion, to say the least, from very early on – remembrance day crosses are juxtaposed with the cruciform shape of bomber planes and Robert Powell in a crucified pose (which must have been useful practice for him), while there’s another extraordinary sequence (the film is not short of them) set in a church devoted to the worship of Marilyn Monroe.

You couldn’t really say that Tommy doesn’t look a bit dated; it almost seems to have become one of those time capsules of pop culture from a past era – the music is classic rock, and in small ways it did remind me of lots of other films from the mid-seventies like A Clockwork Orange (although the extravagant visual sense also put me in mind of Hellraiser II if I’m honest, and that’s a film from much later). Even some of the costumes are re-used from other films (Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers). But it really does hang together as a whole, as a film with its own distinct identity: grandiose, extravagant and surreal, rather like a feature-length music video, and immensely watchable, witty, and entertaining.

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