The Who’s rock-opera, Tommy, came to the screen in 1975. The Who pushed the limits of music in the 1960s and 1970s. Their stage performance was overshadowed by their tendency to smash their guitars and drums. This was music that lost its edge if played softly. A local band with their Fender amps up full still lacked the presence to make a song by The Who sound right.
Tommy is a massive indictment of postmodern life. It does this in a British setting showing the beauty and ugliness of the physical and social landscapes. While specifically exposing the underlying personal damage and conflict between the World War II and post-war generations, it digs at the fake lifestyles of today’s plastic world, a world at odds with the sustainable and sustaining natural world. Even the continual, near unrelenting build of the music speaks to the tension. It makes you nervous by itself.
Early on Tommy shows the human damage done by World War II. Thinking his father dead in a plane crash, Tommy’s mother [Ann-Margret] gives birth to Tommy then remarries. The real death of Tommy’s father at the hands of his postwar parents isolates Tommy from life. He becomes a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid.” He has shut out a world that alienates him internally. His parents try, but they cannot find any help for Tommy from among modern society’s psychological and spiritual counselors. The bankruptcy of society and its inability to deal with the sensitive human spirit are massively clear. Ann-Margret cavorting in a massive flow of baked beans drives the point home.
Of course, Tommy becomes the “pinball wizard.” He beats the champion while the famous song blares that Tommy plays by sense of smell. Pinball is a metaphor for postmodern life. It is an endless playing of a game that brings fame and acclaim, but no relief from real inner pain.
Tommy does revive his spirit and life. “See me, feel me, touch me” is the line Tommy repeats over and over in his frustration with society’s unconcern for his heart. In the end he sees, feels, and is touched. That spirit collapses in decadence as his stepfather immediately takes him down the road of religion for profit. He becomes the messiah for a bankrupt postmodern world. The short attention span of those in that world soon allows them to turn from Tommy’s healing message to one of disappointment with the underlying dirtiness of the money-grubbing.
The geography is that of everyplace, yet inherently British. The geography provides beauty and horror. The opening scene takes you to a British lake in which Ann-Margret and Tommy’s father share an idyllic moment, a picnic on a rock high above the lake, a nude swim in the rushing water in front of a waterfall. The beauty turns dark as the damage of the Blitz rips the dream world apart. The caged protective prison that is Ann-Margret’s bed during the raids is a stark reminder of the horror of it all. Afterward, the lower-class environments of his stepfather are an introduction to a hidden Britain. We often see the fine houses and castles, but now the haunts of the lower class are the focus. Things brighten as Tommy is cleansed in a lake set in the Caledonian-Age hills.
The natural world’s pull on people is a part of Tommy’s rebirth. Ann-Margret is dancing in a wonderful orange dress with a slit down the front. She is imploring Tommy to speak. She finally offers to break the mirror that holds them in a fake environment of cloth-hung walls and garish colors. They break free to the purity of water. They splash around in it as Tommy sings and opens his eyes. He is free, and the natural world is his host. The water is pure as can be. The sun is high in the sky and bright as the camera can take. “…and freedom tastes of reality” he sings finding the natural world. He runs through a war scene where they ignore his pleas. He ends up on a beach where people watch him run while seated in their cars, their sun glasses on, blank stares on their faces. Ann-Margret follows him into the water and is washed herself of her makeup, her jewels. She is baptized.
Tommy’s fame as a wizard brings young people to him as a messiah. This falls apart as they become disillusioned with the perversions of money on faith.
Tommy is an examination of the bankruptcy of global culture where plastic replaces reality. That world will not satisfy what human beings need.
Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2001. Geography in Media: Tommy. Dakota AllianceXI(2): March-April 2001: 11.