Does Tommy work as a Film?
Updated: May 10, 2021
No. But that doesn't mean screenwriters can't learn from it!
Image from my YouTube video on the subject: catch it here
Tommy, the 1969 rock opera by The Who is transcendent, in my opinion. Tommy is a visually, aurally, and verbally impaired person who perceives the world through synesthesiastic sensations. In his isolation, he learns to find not only serenity, but companionship with himself. Despite his withdrawal into himself being precipitated by an act of violence, Tommy has very little apparent anger inside of him.
When he re-emerges from his years long trance, his relations with others come from a paternalistic sense of love and condescension for those around him. And that condescension is palpable. What gets Tommy in trouble in the end is not that he tries to proselytize his vision, but that he tries to extract material wealth from it in the form of a holiday camp.
A film version of Tommy by Ken Russell (who seems to have an oddly consistent niche) was made six years after the album caught fire. The shift from album to screenplay is excellent at demonstrating the difficulties a screenwriter faces when adapting an "invisible" text.
Tommy, the film, defaults to visual motifs that make sense from a purely optical aesthetic. Yet, the visuals the film selects-- as though they were obvious choices-- work to dismantle the very theme of the original album, leaving no emotional core standing. Let's explore:
The main change in the film is that it’s made explicit that Tommy’s father is the one that dies at the hands of the boyfriend. Suddenly, the survivor of the altercation is conspicuous, because it has been demonstrated for us clearly. While the album is able to simply introduce murder and infidelity as a cause of internal strife for Tommy, the film is forced to display the altercation, deeming a winner and a loser: a moral and immoral party.
Tommy's mother becomes a passive enabler of the violence in her home, due to her visible attempts to silence Tommy from revealing the crime he has seen. When her boyfriend kills her husband, it must be made clear to the audience that the boyfriend is 'bad' while Mr. Walker must have been 'good.' The film does not consider whether or not this is the right decision: does not care that emphasis is being placed on characters external to Tommy's internal journey. It simply pushes its visual implications to the furthest extent it possibly can.
This change in narrative weight and the dissolution of the theme of self-companionship results in the core relationship of the film being between Tommy and his father. The importance of this relationship unconsciously reifies itself, as there is no textual reason for Tommy to cling to an image of a father he never met: there is a ton of cross imagery as well as a sun motif throughout the film. Both of these point to the overarching theme of a literal heavenly father. If Tommy is Jesus, as the film unironically assumes him to be, Mr. Walker is obviously god.
The film begins with a striking image of Mr. Walker holding the sun as it sets below the horizon, and this is bookended when Tommy raises the sun in the last shot of the film. The implication that the whole story is told in a metaphorical “night time” caused by the separation of Mr. Walker and Tommy is affirmed when Tommy's true enlightenment is marked by the coming of the day.
However, the implication that Tommy finds enlightenment through a relationship with himself is totally meaningless in this film. What's important to the film is that Tommy’s life and even his fate are completely tied to his absent father.
Tommy sees his father in the mirror; his father leads him on the 'Amazing Journey' through his own mind; his father accompanies him in the isolation that defines his whole life. In this new context, the song “Listening to You” is no longer about Tommy finding depth and companionship within himself, but about an arbitrary family connection. A matter of blood, the most material and primitive kind of connection there is. It’s screw you, got mine.
In this version of the story, Tommy essentially worships his father. His father is likened to a God that he studies and connects with by looking inward. Tommy thinks of himself as “special” because of his incredible inner world, devoid of materialistic context that gives us a false sense of what really matters. But this is undermined by his internal world being consistently marked on screen with filial attachment.
If I had to take a shot in the dark, I would assume that this heightened meaningful relationship, reified in this case by nothing but DNA, has no significance to Russell's work other than the image simply being convenient. The cynical edge to Tommy's Messiah complex and his real attainment of self-discovery at the close of the album are lost in meaningless deference to sensational imagery. And meaningless imagery, like the rising or setting sun, gets dull after a while.
If there is anything to be learned from the mistake that was Tommy (1975) it's that a thematic core and solid motifs will always create a greater impression than opting to striking and intuitively emotional imagery. It's a difficult compromise: negotiating when the associative imagination ought to be given free-rein over the more calculating task of thematic exploration. However, as writers, part of our job is finding inspiration and beauty where ever we can. Even a theme is useless without an artist to tend to it. I believe that if I understand the heart of a piece, beauty will follow.