When it comes to considering vintage celluloid the most over-used cliché of them all is very probably ‘they don’t make them like that any more’, and it’s normally nothing more than gushing hyperbole; the cinematic equivalent of calling unremarkable musicians ‘legendary’. But in the case of Ken Russell’s Tommy, it’s no exaggeration.
This first on-screen realisation of a rock opera [from a director hitherto closely associated with visually ambitious, auteur-styled biopics of classical composers] was nothing short of dazzling when it appeared in 1975 and, stylistically speaking, it provided the template for all subsequent rock, and indeed pop, videos.
Incredibly, the passing years have simply served to intensify its brightness, freshness, movement and power. Russell – prior to being headhunted by The Who, a complete stranger to rock’n’roll – was clearly inspired into the realms of genius by Pete Townshend’s all-consuming passion, Roger Daltrey was a revelation in the title role, and the supporting cast could not have been stronger or, indeed, better chosen [with Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Elton John as The Pinball Wizard, Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed as Tommy’s mother and stepfather, Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie and – fresh from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – Jack Nicholson as a fabulously wolfish Doctor].
Augmented with oodles of anecdotal bells and whistles, this infectiously vigorous Collector’s Edition makes the majority of today’s production line-promo clips seem monochrome by comparison.
KEN RUSSELL ON DOGS PISSING, DRUNK TV APPEARANCES AND HIS DIRECTING TECHNIQUE…
How did you come to direct Tommy?
I was asked: “We have a rock opera here, will you direct it?”. What’s a rock opera? “Well, here are two LPs, play them and you’ll know”. So I played them and I was entranced, captivated. I’d never heard anything like it. And haven’t since, come to that. I wasn’t into rock much, but I was into good music, and I recognised this as good music. And having made a career of putting pictures to classical music, it was only a small sidestep.
When did your passion for putting pictures to music first take hold?
I had a toy projector at the age of 11, and had some marvellous German expressionist silent films. Even then I used to hunt out records, have a wind-up gramophone and find the best kind of music to accompany the picture. And I was brought up on Busby Berkeley musicals, so I’ve got a history of music and movies.
I remember you made a most impassioned speech on Russell Harty Plus in 1975, an evangelical tirade on the power of rock’n’roll.
Yeah, I was drunk, I think. Was that the one in which my dog pissed on his leg? They said dogs weren’t allowed in the studio, and I said if the dog’s not coming in I’m not coming in. I think it was Russell Harty’s leg… It was an eventful programme, all in all.
You were clearly taken with Roger Daltrey as an actor, casting him again in Lisztomania.
He’s a natural, and I like natural actors. It was lucky he identified so much with the Tommy role and made it his own. Though I suppose I took a bit of a risk with him on Lisztomania, but I thought he was very good in that too. But I’m biased probably.
Did he take direction well?
Yeah, but I don’t direct, I just say action and cut.
How do you feel when you watch Tommy now?
It brings back memories and it’s a lot of fun. I don’t think there are any longueurs in it, everything keeps moving, the story bowls along; interesting characters, lovely music, great singing, what more do you want?
Would you have liked to have got your hands on Quadrophenia?
Yeah, I was rather disappointed I wasn’t asked. I didn’t think the film was that good, frankly. Not terribly imaginative. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?