Listening To You I Get The Movie: Ken Russell's Tommy (1975) Explained
The days of the traveling circus may be over but the freak show is still going strong. It’s called celebrity or reality television, and people will willingly pay more than five cents to watch you self-combust. While celebrity fascination and gossip are both old as dirt, the definition of celebrity has certainly widened within the last decade. Nobody is safe from being thrust immediately into the spotlight and ripped to shreds–co-opted family photos, out of context tweets, women with opinions, guys who show up to presidential debates, racists who post obscene shit under their own names, you name it.
At this point, it’s a countdown to when any of us are forced to face the searing judgment of million anonymous eyes. While overcoming a public judgment can be nearly impossible for the accused, we typically allow ourselves the nuances and flaws that come with being human. The question of “who are you” can be a difficult one to pin down, whether you’re forced to answer in front of a crowd or just in the mirror to yourself. The question of who gets to decide who you are in public is another one entirely.
Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975), of all films, seems to have predicted both this widening definition of instant-celebrity, as well as the psychological pressures that come with it. Not that it came out of the blue, the film was based heavily on The Who’s album of the same name, which was based loosely based on Pete Townshend’s childhood and life as rockstar. As a psychedelic romp with music, colors, costumes, celebrity cameos and themes, watching it now you quickly realize how much of a ‘70s time capsule it is. With all of this, on top of it’s bizarre plot and an open ended conclusion, you’ll hear a lot of people writing it off as drug-induced nonsense. Yet, the film has aged incredibly well in spite of itself and, like most Ken Russell movies, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Tommy at its core is about self-acceptance, learning how to embrace your past in order to accept yourself in the face of societal pressure.
At the beginning of the movie Tommy is a child. His understanding of the world and its events only exist as dictated to him by his parents. So when his parents tell him he didn’t hear or see the murder of his father and he should never speak about it, he takes their words literally and becomes deaf, blind and mute. Tommy spends the rest of his childhood staring at the mirror while fantasizing that he’s someone else–somebody who is seen, heard, and desired.
Having accepted his parents’ alternate reality he continues in his catatonic state to the dismay of his mother and stepfather. Instead of acknowledging the mental damage they've subjected Tommy to, his parents hope to “cure” him with various forms of societal pressure. However these things–religious instruction, sex with a prostitute and doing hard drugs–are all forms of adult escapism, and you can’t cure escapism with more escapism. The violent torture by his cousin and molestation at the hands of his uncle, both products of adult corruption and manipulation, also serve to push Tommy further and further into his alternate reality. Tommy is at the mercy of wherever he's left, he does not yet realize there’s a world he can control outside of the psychological boundaries his parents have thrust upon him.
The only thing Tommy will interact with is a pinball machine, and for a deaf, dumb and blind kid he sure plays a mean pinball. He’s suddenly famous for his pinball skills after winning a championship game, and he quickly becomes a celebrity. Pinball as a game is simple and reflexive–to him, it fits in perfectly with the obedient, childlike world he’s trapped in. Yet, in spite of his newfound fame his comatose state remains. It’s only until his mother smashes Tommy’s beloved mirror out of frustration that he is freed from his psychosomatic prison. Symbolically, this is both her public admission of guilt to her son, and his own realization that his parents are not infallible. It also causes both a literal and psychological breakthrough, as he finds that his fantasy mirror-universe is actually the same as the world he'd been already living in.
Newly aware of all of life's possibilities that have now opened up to him, Tommy is in a state of pure bliss. He decides he wants to help cure any other lost souls that might be out there by sharing his story of enlightenment with the world. Using his pinball fame he opens his own Holiday Camp, and he employs his family to run the camp, including his abusive uncle. As word of his miracle cure spreads, Tommy quickly garners a massive following looking for more out of life. The camp instructs its enrollees to be deaf, dumb and blind in an attempt to recreate his childhood, and hopefully spark a similar revelation within them.
His followers, however, are less interested in what Tommy has to say and more interested in him as a public figure for their consumption. Instead of applying what can be learned from his experiences to their own lives, they take his words literally and look to Tommy for Jesus-like salvation. Once they realize following his methods won't literally fix their lives, the crowd quickly turns on him. They riot and a fire breaks out, killing his parents and destroying the camp. Tommy is devastated and escapes to the nearby mountains as the sun rises.
In this final scene, Tommy has another realization; this time it’s one about the nature of the human experience. Tommy realizes that telling his followers to superficially become deaf, dumb, and blind is no better than his mother instructing him not to trust his own eyes and ears after witnessing the death of his father. At the same time, he cannot let the expectations or even violent anger of his followers, or abuse by his family, define who he is. Whether or not his story of personal enlightenment was truly relevant to the experience of others, does not diminish its relevance to himself as an individual. In the lyrics to the final song, Tommy cites every source from his life that taught him how to interpret the world. His definitions of excitement, love, accomplishment, glory, opinions, and even his own introspection is the product of his upbringing and his personal experience. This in itself is beautiful and important, whether the world thinks it is or not.
Tommy’s true revelation is that of his individuality. Had he not had these experiences, traumatic or not, he would never be the person he has become. He finds peace in this knowledge of self-acceptance. Instead of wishing his past had not happened or wishing for a life that could have been, Tommy accepts the life he has lived and owns his pain, mistakes and accomplishments. This experience is what both attracts people to him and causes them to lash out at him in the end. What makes you great to other people is the confidence you have in yourself. If you can achieve that confidence then people will rally around you. Whether or not these other people approve will, in the end, be inconsequential. However, what you cannot do is languish in escapism, passively allow other people to define your limits, or to find yourself trapped in the role of the victim. If you do, you’re forcing yourself to become deaf, dumb and blind to your own life. It’s easy to see how Pete Townshend, with his own tumultuous childhood and sudden fame with The Who, latched onto these themes so readily.
The true genius of the film, however, is in the depth of Ken Russell’s filmmaking. I firmly believe that those who leave this movie thinking it was nonsense are akin to the disillusioned crowd that burns down Tommy’s camp. In that way too, Ken Russell’s movie Tommy becomes itself like Tommy the character. Here you have Ken Russell creating something through the parental-like input of both The Who and the mood of the time; it’s full of imagery from The Who albums, symbols, fashion, and cameos of pop culture. There’s also whiplash tone jumps from serious to slapstick that mirror both the temperature of the time and the musicality of the original album. Ken Russell’s cacophony of sound and images seem to inspire everything from hatred, confusion, and fascination from its audience. Yet whether or not the audience accepts it or not the movie still exists in all of its confident glory. In that way, it remains truly unforgettable–for better or worse.