Tommy: Rock & Roll Religion

The search for one’s purpose and place in the world is a profound struggle that resonates universally. The intimidating indifference of life leaves us all to ponder this from time to time, as the search for answers becomes a lifelong quest to fill this void of purpose. These existential questions lie in all of us, and are sought in many different ways. Primarily, people find comfort in faith of a higher power as dictated by various religions. Others find similar comfort in the opposite: the idea that life has no purpose and exists only to fulfill the needs of the individual.. These uniquely human endeavors are identified as our “spirituality” in that we value the consciousness of our being, or “human spirit”, above material possessions. The journey of discovery one takes in their spirituality has made for some of the most compelling cinema to date. David Lean’s seminal epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), is one of the best examples, as Lawrence is thrust into glory as leader of the Arab people, but begins to falter as he struggles to uphold his heroic reputation. Some overtly religious films are ought to explore this idea more thoroughly, like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) where Jesus is torn between his human nature and divine purpose. The story of Jesus is one that has served as a template for countless other messiah-like stories, ranging from similarly revered saviors like R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), to more fantastical action heroes like Neo in The Matrix (1999). One of the more unconventional of these messiahs comes in Ken Russell’s surreal interpretation of Tommy (1975), using the story of the the titular deaf, dumb, and blind boy as a scathing critique of those who exploit and misrepresent religion and spirituality.

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A visual representation of Tommy’s imposed dead, dumb, and blindness.

Tommy is the film adaptation of English rock band The Who’s rock opera of the same name from 1969. The film chronicles the young boy’s life beginning when he is traumatized after witnessing his step-father (played by Oliver Reed) murder his assumedly deceased biological father. He and Tommy’s mother (played by Ann-Margret) subsequently berate Tommy in an attempt to cover up their crime, rendering Tommy completely catatonic. Tommy finds he has a gift for the game of pinball by utilizing his remaining heightened senses, becoming a worldwide sensation and eventually the leader of a religious cult. The film is a bizarre and magnificent product of its time, and manages to be a fairly faithful adaptation of guitarist Pete Townshend’s original vision. The order of some songs are swapped, a few lines changed here and there, and several additional songs are added to enhance the narrative. Russell takes a very literal approach to Townshend’s lyrics, and crafts a bold fantasy to encompass the story of trauma, religion, and ultimate enlightenment. Of these three recurring themes, Russell leans on religion most, sprinkling critiques of religious institutions throughout Tommy’s journey towards salvation. He bounces from one supposed spiritual savior to the next, rejecting each until he discovers enlightenment through himself. Tommy is ultimately a film about the failures of organized religions and spiritual vices, and how true salvation comes from within. Russell demonstrates this through a fantastic combination of colorful visuals and an electric soundtrack that make the amazing journey of Tommy a wholly unique experience.

Tommy. Dir. Ken Russell.

The film opens on a shot of a man standing before a gigantic setting sun. The orange hue fades and the man walks away from his perch towards the camera, joining a woman for a picnic. The man is Captain Walker, and the woman is Nora Walker: Tommy’s soon-to-be parents. They frolic in a waterfall and express their love for each other under a tree. Their passionate romance is soon cut short, though, as Captain Walker is called away to the war. During “Captain Walker/It’s a Boy” we see Tommy’s father shot down in a fiery spectacle. Shortly after, Tommy is born during the celebration of the war’s end. His birth coinciding with the first day of peace is the film’s first indication of Tommy’s messianic destiny. After attending the memorial service, Tommy’s mother takes him to “Bernie’s Holiday Camp” presumably to help them move past the grief plaguing them both.

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Oliver Reed as Frank in Tommy.

There, they meet Frank (Reed) who both Tommy and his mother take an immediate liking to. Tommy begins to call him “Uncle Frank” and dreams of one day owning his own holiday camp, while Nora and Frank wonder if Tommy will be as excited about their relationship as they are. When the family returns home it is clear Frank will have trouble filling the patriarchal role in Tommy’s life though, as his room is designed like an altar to his war-hero father. The walls are covered with a fighter plane design and models of similar planes hang all around the room. On his bedside table is a picture of his father placed next to a candle labeled “sentinel”. Tommy worships his father as a godly figure who sacrificed his life and now watches over and protects him.

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ˈsent(ə)nəl/ (noun): a soldier or guard whose job is to stand and keep watch.

Any chance of happiness is destroyed during “1951/What About the Boy?” though, when Captain Walker miraculously returns home and Tommy witnesses Frank murder him with a lamp. Frank and Nora lambaste Tommy into dismissing the experience so they can bury the crime. “You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it, you won’t say nothing to no one, never in your life,” they yell at him. The consequence of this is that the abuse, in combination with the trauma of witnessing the murder, leaves Tommy deaf, dumb, and blind. During “Amazing Journey” we are given a visual representation of Tommy’s inner imagination that he has escaped to. Instead of enjoying the carnival ride his parents have brought him to,  Tommy instead imagines himself alongside his father in the cockpit of his plane. Tommy has taken shelter in his subconscious, and is using the glorified image of his father as navigator for his mind.

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Tommy. Dir. Ken Russell.

“A vague haze of delirium creeps up on him, soaring and flying images spin. He is your leader, he is your guide. On the amazing journey together you’ll ride,” the song says. The song delves further into Tommy’s mind, zooming into his eye and showing Captain Walker at the top of the mountain again, but now holding a glowing white sphere.The scene transitions into more heavy-handed symbolism showing Captain Walker crucified against the image of a plane made to look like a cross. This imagery solidifies the explicit Jesus allegory at the center of Tommy, with Captain Walker representing God and Tommy his one and only begotten son. Russell does this so obviously so that the audience can more conscientiously engage in the religious themes of the film as they occur, beginning with the following scene.

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The Jesus allegory imagery is extremely overt in Tommy.

“Christmas” begins as a loving ode to the happiness of children during the titular time of year. The song highlights the excitement of children waking up early and looking for presents around the tree, but also their thankfulness towards God. “They believe in dreams and all they mean including heaven’s generosity,” sings Mrs. Walker. The focus of the song then shifts to Tommy, and his inability to reach God. “And Tommy doesn’t know what day it is. He doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is,” Tommy’s mother continues to say. The other guests chime in singing: “How can he be saved, from the eternal grave?” Here, everybody is more concerned with Tommy’s immortal soul than his earthly body, echoing the themes of spirituality. During this time we also hear Tommy cry out from his mind for the first time, desperately pleading for some kind of connection. The words “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me” will become a recurring motif throughout the film. “Only if he’s cured will his spirit’s future level ever heighten,” Nora sings. Before the end of the scene Tommy’s mother places a nativity set in front of him. Tommy reaches out and grabs the figurine of Mother Mary and smashes it into the nativity, knocking the whole thing onto the ground. He rejects the institutions of religion presented to him, and more specifically his mother for forcing it onto him.

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Tommy. Dir. Ken Russell.

The scene then immediately cuts to a grown Tommy, now played by The Who frontman Roger Daltrey. “Eyesight to the Blind” sees Tommy’s mother take him to a faith healer (played by Eric Clapton) who claims his woman can cure the deaf and blind. The woman in question happens to be a 15-foot statue of Marilyn Monroe in her immortal pose from The Seven Year Itch (1955). Because the previous song dealt directly with rejection of Christianity specifically, Russell instead opted to make this scene a critique of celebrity worship, which is another theme that comes to Tommy himself later in the film. The idea of Monroe as a representation of pure feminine beauty has outlived even her own celebrity as a movie star, and is the ideal choice for a person who is worshiped for what they represent more than who they were.

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Roger Daltry, Pete Townshend, and Eric Clapton in Tommy.

The congregation proceed to take a communion of prescription pills and alcohol: the deadly combination that ended Monroe’s life. The glamorization of Monroe’s unfortunate death is not only morbid, but also distasteful, which is exactly Russell’s point. The idea of celebrity worship robs these people of their humanity, and attempts to force them to conform to their followers’ expectations of themselves. This type of pressure was one of the reasons Monroe turned to medication and alcohol as a means of coping. When Tommy is brought to the statue to worship at her feet, he inadvertently topples the statue, completely destroying it. Tommy has, again, rejected religious worship as his path towards salvation.

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Tommy. Dir. Ken Russell.

Frank then takes Tommy to a strip club where a woman called “The Acid Queen” (played by Tina Turner) claims her drugs can give Tommy the salvation the preacher’s religion could not. She takes Tommy upstairs and puts him inside a large iron maiden designed to inject him with her drugs. In an extensive interview, Townshend comments on the song saying: “The song’s not about just acid; it’s the whole drug thing, the drink thing, the sex thing, wrapped into one big ball. It’s about how you get it laid on you that you haven’t lived if you haven’t fucked forty birds, taken sixty trips, drunk fourteen pints of beer – or whatever. Society – people – force you. She represents this force… I feel that there’s a spiritual process going on in every person’s head that’s so overwhelmingly complex and so beautifully balanced, and acid just feeds on the distortion of that balance.” 

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Roger Daltry as the eponymous messiah in Tommy.

Tommy’s trip is displayed for the audience, first showing Captain Walker in the iron maiden. He is then replaced by Tommy, who is dripping with blood and adorned with the flowers from the memorial service. He wears a crown of poppies, similar to the crown of thorns Jesus bore at his crucifixion. By juxtaposing Captain Walker and Tommy with the specific Jesus-laden imagery the film again confirms their connection as godly figures. Lastly, we are shown a skeleton with snakes crawling around inside its skull. Typically, snakes represent either temptation or corruption, and in this case both are applicable. The spiritual powers of the drug are potent, but can be dangerous, overwhelming, and potentially life-ending. Tommy emerges from the device and passes out. Still quivering, the Acid Queen addresses her failure. “Just give me one more night!” she begs. Frank drags Tommy away from the delusional Queen, who is clearly a victim to the power of her own drug.

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Tina Turner as the “Acid Queen” in Tommy.

After their several failed attempts at curing Tommy, Frank and Nora begin to neglect him. They recklessly leave him in the care of his abusive relatives: Tommy’s sadistic “Cousin Kevin” who mercilessly tortures Tommy as soon as his parents are out of the door, and perverse Uncle Ernie who sexually molests Tommy during “Fiddle About”. These scenes do not contain any of the religious commentary that are present throughout previous songs, but do contribute further to Tommy’s trauma. However, in these scenes are the first instances of Tommy’s obsession with the mirror, which he can actually see himself through. First, he sees a single, red-colored projection of himself which then develops a second, yellow-colored projection. Red is the easiest color for the human eye to recognize, as most of the cones in the retina respond to it first, followed by yellow, and blue soon after. Tommy is slowly regaining his senses the more he stares into the mirror, and when he sees a third, blue-colored projection, all three come together to form a perfect reflection of himself.

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Tommy. Dir. Ken Russell.

The song “Sparks” begins to play and Tommy is urged by his reflection to follow him out the door. Tommy follows him into a mountainous junkyard where he stumbles through the wreckage, coming across a glowing sphere in the sky, exactly like the one Captain Walker held in Tommy’s earlier vision. Tommy still cannot recognize exactly what it is, so it is presented to him in the form he was shown in “Amazing Journey”, but in actuality it is an old pinball machine. Tommy is elated by the machine, as he responds to the game with euphoric delight, and demonstrates miraculous skill, despite his incapacitated senses. The idea of “pinball” itself isn’t directly allegorical, but what it represents to Tommy is supposed to be the meaningful takeaway.

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Tommy experiences pure ecstasy when feeling the vibrations of the pinball machine.

Townshend said of this moment: “Tommy’s games aren’t games. They’re like the first real thing he’s done in his life… this is Tommy’s first big triumph. He’s got results. A big score. He doesn’t know all this; he stumbled on a machine, started to pull levers and so on, got things going, and suddenly started getting incredible affection – like pats on the back.” Tommy’s newfound skill proves lucrative for his family, as the fame of his talent with the table affords them a lavish life full of yachts, Cadillacs, and all the champagne his mother can drink. In what is undoubtedly the most exciting and energetic scene of the film, we see Tommy facing off against the “Pinball Wizard” (played by Elton John) in a televised battle of skill versus sense. The towering champion is baffled by Tommy’s profound abilities, and is ultimately defeated. Clearly, Tommy’s skills are shown to be a divine talent: instead of walking on water, Tommy is unrivaled in the sport of pinball.

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Sir Elton John as the “Pinball Wizard” in Tommy.

Tommy’s mother watches his victory from the comfort of the pristine, heaven-like room of their new mansion. She sips away at “Champagne” and feasts on chocolates while flipping through channels. She comes across a commercial for canned beans being presented to royalty, reflecting her own status thanks to Tommy’s fame. She continues to indulge in these excesses, celebrating Tommy’s success and what she believes to be his awaited salvation. Though, when she looks again to the broadcast, she sees Tommy is still as catatonic as ever, and we hear him call out from within again: “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.” Disgusted with her own exploitation of Tommy, the guilt she experiences results in a nervous breakdown. She throws her emptied bottle at the television, which begins to erupt with the champagne that symbolizes the wealth Tommy has brought. The purity of this is corrupted by a sudden burst of canned beans and chocolate, which stain the white room in a disgusting mess of the luxuries consumed by Nora in her blind greed.

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A rather repulsive display of corrupted purity stand out as one of the most memorable scenes from Tommy.

After some time, Frank brings good news in how he’s found a doctor who can supposedly cure Tommy. The specialist (played by Jack Nicholson) gives Tommy a series of tests to try and find a way to reach him. “There is no chance, no untried operation. All hope lies with him and none with me,” the doctor says. “No machine can give the kind of stimulation needed to remove his inner block.” The title of the song, “Go to the Mirror!”, indicates where Tommy’s salvation lies: not in religion, substance abuse, or even pinball, but through introspection and self reflection. In “Smash the Mirror” Tommy’s mother pushes him to have a literal breakthrough, launching him through the shattering mirror where he plummets into a pool below, and emerges: healed and reborn.

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Tommy is finally able to break his trance in “Smash the Mirror”.

“I’m Free,” Tommy cries out while running through fields of flowers, and along the beaches, and even across the waves of the ocean. Tommy has risen from the dead and ascended to become a god-like being, and is now spreading the word of his salvation, looking to teach others in his way of life. “If I told you what it takes to reach the highest high you’d laugh and say nothing’s that simple. But you’ve been told many times before, messiah’s showed you to the door, no one had the guts to leave the temple.” Tommy sings as he taunts nearby soldiers, egging them on to flaunt his godly invincibility. Tommy’s mother discovers him passed out, lying on the rocks near the ocean. He awakens, and speaks with his mother for the first time since his the trauma-inducing incident of his childhood. In this moment between “Mother and Son” Nora informs Tommy of his prestigious fame as a pinball champion, and the devoted group of followers he has. “And now that you’re whole, you’ll be champion of their very souls,” she tells him. Tommy proceeds to strip his mother of the gaudy jewelry she has adorned herself in and baptizes her as the first new follower of the religion of Tommy.

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Tommy baptizes his mother in the ocean so that she may begin to follow him.

This new religion begins to rival the pre-established institutions, with young follower “Sally Simpson” rejecting the teachings of her reverend father in favor of Tommy’s celebrity faith. The practices of Tommy’s religion are more like a rock & roll show than any traditional sermon. Tommy leaps onto a stage covered in posters of himself in a religious pose, as he sings his gospel into a cross-shaped microphone that is a large “T” with a pinball as the head. The word of Tommy spreads fast, as his mere presence is shown to break up brutal street fights. Tommy descends from the heavens on a hang glider, claiming himself to be a “Sensation”. Flocks of new followers gather at the footsteps of Tommy’s house. Young and old, crippled and well, all wish to follow Tommy and his ways. “Welcome”, Tommy says as he invites all to join his congregation. “Come to this house, be one of us” Nora and Frank urge the followers, and Tommy instructs them to bring everyone they know to join him.

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Tommy and his parents welcome all into their home to join their congregation.

After their home proves too small to house all the followers of Tommy, Frank is instructed to build a large extension to the home, which eventually evolves into a franchise of “Tommy’s Holiday Camp”, where followers are instructed to purchase various Tommy accessories to assist in their own salvation. T-shirts, mirrors, and records are being sold to profit off Tommy’s religion, which begins to aggravate his followers. There is also a special device designed to emulate Tommy’s enlightening experience by blinding, silencing, and deafening themselves. Fed up with Tommy’s corrupted ideals they begin to revolt. “These pricey deals don’t teach us. Your freedom doesn’t reach us. Enlightenment escapes us. Awareness doesn’t shape us,” they yell in “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.

“We’re Not Gonna Take It” the followers yell at Tommy.

They overthrow Tommy’s establishment, destroying Tommy’s pinball machines and killing both his parents in a riot. Tommy grieves over the loss of his parents, and the rejection of his teachings. He calls out to his mother one last time, pleading to be saved again. Tommy has lost everything in his attempt at passing along his teachings through organized religion. To reconcile his failures he seeks sanctuary in his place of origin. Tommy returns to the mountain of his conception in “Listening to You”, hoping to find new purpose as he attempts to connect with his godly father. Tommy climbs to the top of the mountain and the film ends mirroring the opening shot: a man standing before the humbling image of a gigantic yellow sun.

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Tommy. Dir. Ken Russell.

At the end of it all, the story of Tommy can still be a bit perplexing. It is, after all, a combination of two unique artists’ take on this messiah story. Both Russell and Townshend wanted Tommy to showcase the failures of organized religion to serve the salvation they claim to preach, and the film certainly does so. The critique is sometimes a little too on the nose with its blatant Jesus-inspired imagery, but ultimately Tommy succeeds in crafting a colorful tale of the struggle to find one’s inner being. “The boy’s life starts to represent the whole nature of humanity – we all have this self-imposed deaf, dumb, and blindness,” Townshend says. “Every individual has a load. You can tell by the way people ruthlessly live their lives that they’re fulfilling some sort of destiny. On minor levels it can be astrological; on other levels it can be evolutionary or environmental. Biggest of all is the feeling that there’s something really latently powerful driving every man… You just feel that everyone’s desperately getting things done while never getting to grips with their individual problems.”

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Tommy. Dir. Ken Russell.

The singular theme of Tommy is that the responsibility of spirituality is dependent on the individual: no amount of church, or drugs, or pinball, or any other vice will bring you closer to your salvation. Rather, it depends on you to take the steps towards divinity, and attempt to understand the moralities presented by these outlets. “Rama Krishna, Buddha, Zarathustra, Jesus and Meher Baba are all divine figures on earth. They all said the same thing; yet still we trundle on. This is basically what Tommy is saying. But his followers ask how to follow him, and disregard his teaching. They want rules and regulations; going to church on Sundays – but he just says ‘live life’.”

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