Screen Gems

Elton John in vintage platforms; Ann-Margret spilling the beans

Elton John in ‘Tommy’

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a rewatch.

The Trippy: Tommy

While it doesn’t get remembered (or for that matter, rewatched) as some of the contemporary musicals of its day, Tommy director Ken Russell’s adaptation of the album by The Who, deserves a place in the movie musical pantheon. Long before iconic albums American Idiot and Jagged Little Pill landed on Broadway, and long before Baz Luhrmann and Lars Von Trier would revive the movie rock opera, Tommy pointed the way to the future.

The plot concerns a boy born at the end of World War II. With his father missing in action, his mother Nora (Ann-Margret) begins a relationship with her new boyfriend, Frank (Oliver Reed). Five years in, Tommy’s dad returns, and Nora & Frank murder him as the child watches. Flash forward to adulthood, where Tommy (Roger Daltrey) has lost his ability to see, speak or hear from the trauma. Nora and Frank subject Tommy to sadistic doctors, bizarre cults and even drug-addled hookers to try and cure him. Nothing works…until Tommy discovers pinball and manages to become a world champion.

Tommy foreshadowed the odd celebrity obsession of the 21st century, not to mention cause célèbres, ravenous media, or the way that the public loves to elevate a star, only to tear him down later. Russell goes all-in on the material, crafting a psychedelic, zany and downright hallucinatory film to support it. He gets away with it because of his cast, which also includes Elton John as Tommy’s pinball rival, Tina Turner as an acid-dealing hooker, Jack Nicholson (and yes, he sings), Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and the late Keith Moon. Ann-Margret gives one of the greatest performances in musical history as Tommy’s mom, in particular during one scene involving beans that might rank as the most bizarre moment in cinema history. Viewers may not enjoy Tommy‘s wild visuals and may find its comments on the Baby Boomer generation obtuse. That doesn’t make the score, performances or eye-popping visuals any less unforgettable.

Streams on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes & YouTube.