Touch me, heal me, feel me, see me.. see me wonder what the hell was up with Tommy.
From a film perspective, the story telling is shite. But the point of the thing is not to tell a story so much as to play a shitload of Who tunes for the audience and then fling some visuals at them so their eyes have something to look at. I think the story is very much secondary.
Here’s the plot, such as it is – Tommy’s dad is a fighter pilot whose plane goes down during WWII, leaving Tommy to be born to a single mom who’d been served the M.I.A papers months earlier. Some years later, Mom meets this bizarre idiot at a family fun camp who falls madly in love with her, and she with him (mostly on account of her being lonely).
Now, the Man (who suggested I watch this) said that there is a version of the story where Loverman (Oliver Reed in the film) is killed by Dad. Here, it’s Dad surprising Mom and Loverman in bed and getting killed instead. Either way, Tommy witnesses this tragic event and Mom (played brilliantly by Ann-Margret) does the most horrible thing a parent can do and sides with Loverman telling young Tommy he never saw a thing, never heard a thing, that nothing at all happened. This complete false reality blows young Tommy’s mind and renders him blind, deaf, and mute.
It’s hard to tell for the longest time if either adult feels guilty over that, but at least there are attempts to “cure” his affliction, each one more pathetic or weird than the last. A Lourdes-style Marilyn Monroe cult is the first attempt we see with Tommy as an older man (Roger Daltrey). Mom drags him over to the Marilyn statue in the small hope that touching the thing will cure him (was anyone else appalled to see wheelchair after wheelchair wheeled past this obvious mockery of Catholic faith? It’s appalling to know it really happens, let alone to see a film make fun of it in such an obvious and fairly tactless way). Loverman apparently owns a strip club and winds up paying The Acid Queen (Tina Turner, who was awesome) to appeal to his .. manhood, I guess. Jack Nicholson pops in to play doctor at another point, offering yet another waste-of-time treatment.
Nobody’s treating Tommy very well beyond that – various “relatives” are cruel to him and his parents do little with him, at a loss as to what there physically is to do with him, I guess, and Tommy spends a lot of time “looking” at himself through mirrors. His mirror self lures him out of the apartment eventually and he winds up in a junk yard where he stumbles across a pinball machine. Miraculously, he can play it like a wizard.
This plot line appears to exist solely as a reason to put Elton John in giant boots while he sings the break-out number from the original album, Pinball Wizard, the only song I knew from the whole thing.
Then again, this plot point is a way to change their fortunes, too, and his parents appreciate Tommy more once he’s making them rich. Eventually, though, Mom reaches a point where she’s so angry at his inability to react to or communicate with her that she shoves him right through one of the mirrors, which somehow leads him to fall directly into a swimming pool. This works a bit like a miraculous baptism scene for him because he rises from the water able to see. And sing. Finally.
Of course, Tommy winds up looking at himself as a new Messiah, baptizing Mom, creating a new religion of his own (or his followers do?), complete with a new paradise holiday resort they can all buy their way into (and don’t forget to buy the T symbols and Tommy shirts and blinder/earplug/cork combos on your way in). I think he really believes he’s going to be a guide somehow, because he’s had this fantastic life-altering event occur that made his whole existence better.
He creates rules and guidelines for his followers (no beer, play pinball, etc) and he promises the world: so long as people are prepared to shill out for it (granted, that might be more of Loverman’s scheme than Tommy’s.. maybe he’s completely sincere and his handlers are taking advantage). Still, he winds up being a typical sham-guru and while many become devoted to whatever the hell kind of happiness he’s peddling, eventually his followers revolt with what might be my favourite song in the whole thing:
We’re not gonna take it
Never did and never will
Don’t want no religion
And as far as we can tell
We ain’t gonna take you
Never did and never will
We’re not gonna take you
We forsake you
Gonna rape you
Let’s forget you better still.
They’re pissed off because they think he can lead them somewhere new when the reality is he’s just so damn glad he’s really one of them – one who can see and hear and interact with other people. Maybe they misunderstood what his joy was, and were somehow deluded into thinking there was more to have than something that damn simple. That’s my take on it, anyway. It’s Tommy’s first experience with miscommunication and the result is tragic.
That’s all I’ll say about the film — something interesting worth noting about pinball, though. I got to wondering if pinball saw a rise in popularity after this film came out (like the Trans Am after Burt Reynolds drove one), and was shocked to discover the machines were banned in some places prior to this movie even coming out. They were treated as games people could gamble over and therefore were outlawed. New York and L.A. had banned the things back in the early ’40s. It wasn’t until 1974 (’76 in NY) before court cases proved the games had more to do with skill and ability than random chance.
Adds another interesting edge to Tommy, though, doesn’t it? Was pinball under similar constraints in the UK at any time, or was this just an odd American business?