I really miss Ken Russell. He may have been one of the most uneven directors to ever stand behind a camera, his work being all over the map including some dreadful ones, but that’s largely because he was always willing to take a chance, to try something new. When he was at his best, there was no one in the world who could touch him for startling imagery, except maybe Stanley Kubrick. His totally insane and wonderful The Boy Friend is on my list of best films ever, and is tied with West Side Story and All That Jazz as best musical films ever.
This is his second-best effort. I say second-best more because of the source material than any lack of effort on Russell’s part. The Boy Friend is wacky and light-hearted, and Tommy is much darker, and pretentious. It’s funny, I thought Pete Townshend’s “rock opera” was a lot deeper at the time than it appears today. I guess it helped that the music kept you rocking along, without a lot of time to think about what it all meant … which wasn’t much at all. I’m sure there are deep, serious works somewhere as to the symbolism and messages and all sorts of other things about it, and I will never read them, thank you very much. It’s all pretty silly.
But what a springboard for Russell’s imagination! Verse after verse, song after song, scene after scene suggested the most incredible visuals to him. There are literally dozens of these set pieces, from the pinball confrontation with Elton John in what must be the largest boots ever worn by anyone to the devotees of the cult of Marilyn Monroe, to the bone-chilling performance by Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, complete with a chrome-plated iron maiden with huge syringes for the spikes. But the one no one could ever possible forget is Ann-Margret in the all-white bedroom, throwing the champagne bottle into the TV screen and being literally bowled over, blown away by explosions of soap suds, baked beans, and chocolate. Then she writhes in the mess in one of the most weirdly erotic scenes ever put on film. What did it mean? Somebody said it was all about consumerism and consumption. I guess. All I care about is that I’ll never forget it.