30 films to watch before you die, #5
"Tommy" was a rock opera recorded by the Who in 1969, and adapted for film in 1975. "Adapted" is a polite way of putting it. Effectively the rock opera's concept was hijacked by the director, Ken Russell, and the resulting film has very little in common with the original album. The order of the songs has been changed, lyrics have been changed, and some new songs have been written. It's the same sort of thing that happened when Stanley Kubrick adapted Stephen King's book, "The Shining". The difference is that Stephen King didn't approve of Kubrick's changes, but Pete Townshend, the author of "Tommy", trusted Ken Russell and supported everything he wanted to do.
In the early 1970's Ken Russell wanted to make a film about false religion. When he heard the album "Tommy" he thought he could use the music to tell his story. That's the reason for the many changes between the album and the film. This is Ken Russell's story with Pete Townshend's music.
My first review of this film describes it well, and I don't want to repeat everything I've already said. I'll just add a few words about the person of Tommy himself.
Tommy was a lost soul. He was traumatised by seeing his father murdered in front of him. The shock made him deaf, dumb and blind, incapable of communicating with the outside world. During this time he was in deep meditation. He stared at himself. His own self was seen as external to himself. It was his view of himself that led him. While this doubtlessly strengthened him, he could only be freed from the self-imposed isolation by looking away from himself.
Tommy's first act when he became able to speak was to forgive his mother. Did she deserve his forgiveness? I think not. She didn't love her son. He was a burden to her. She didn't say that she would give anything for her son to be cured, she said that she would give anything to be able to forget her son's illness. That's a terrible thing for a mother to say.
After Tommy's cure he rises up as the new Messiah. He founds a new religion. Tommy looks back on what he's gone through and teaches his disciples lessons based on his own experiences. He's so full of idealism that he doesn't see the corruption in his own religion. His mother and his step-father become leaders in the new religion, financially profiting from it. Tommy has a pure heart, he lives a life of asceticism, but those closest to him are filling their own pockets. That includes his mother. Forgiveness didn't bring her onto a path of righteousness. In the end she reaps the reward of sin, death.
Tommy's followers eventually reject his teachings. Or maybe they're only rejecting the religious system built up around him. Either way, the result is the same. They destroy his religious buildings and artefacts. Tommy isn't dismayed by this. On the contrary, he is saved again, for the second time in his life. He no longer wants to be the Messiah. He seeks solace in listening to a higher power than himself. This is God, maybe the Christian God, but not necessarily. In the final scene Tommy sings to the sun, suggesting a pagan religion. What's more important than the identity of the God he's addressing is the underlying philosophical message. If you've found enlightenment, as Tommy evidently has, don't seek to teach it to others. What's right to you might be wrong if enforced on others. Follow God, and let others follow your example without you asking them to.
If you enjoy this film, here are a few other musicals you might like: