When I first saw the movie “Tommy,” based on The Who’s rock opera, I was 27-years-old. It was 1975—35-years ago. Last night, at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York, I saw the film again for the first time since it opened. This time, Ken Russell, the film’s director was in the audience.
I was mesmerized by the sheer audacity of the movie. It was like seeing a great work of art for the first time. I always knew filmmaking in the 1970s was far better, but this work is a genuine masterpiece that I had previously failed to recognize. We all took a lot of drugs in the 70s, but it’s clear they didn’t hurt a bit. In fact, the opposite happened. The drugs contributed to a level of creativity that we haven’t collectively experienced since in the arts.
From Tina Turner’s performance as the “Acid Queen” to Keith Moon’s “Uncle Ernie” to Jack Nicholson’s “the Specialist,” the characters in this film are each priceless. Ann-Margaret, Oliver Reed and Roger Daltrey are far, far better than I ever remembered. And Ken Russell...well it takes a brilliant director to pull off such an achievement.Ken Russell has been compared to Orson Welles. Having had the privilege to work with Welles, I certainly can understand the comparison. Ken’s body of work is truly breathtaking—something we simply don’t see anymore in a motion picture business dominated by soulless corporations who cater mostly to dumbed-down mass audiences.
As I left the theatre last night, I reflected on my own good luck to have lived in the years that I have. I got to experience the work of the world’s best filmmakers and meet most of them while they were alive. In today’s down-sized economic environment, most of them will never be able to make the films they want to. That is so sad, but a fact of life that seeing “Tommy” again so clearly emphasized.