I saw Tommy last week at the theater, and I’ve been thinking it over on and off since then. I have seen bits and pieces of the movie, but my strongest memory of it was Ann-Margret rolling around in baked beans (urgh, what on earth was that even supposed to mean?) and an overall impression of pretentious freakyness. The musical was awfully good and had a completely different vibe.
Three different actors portrayed Tommy at different stages of his life, each wearing an outfit of head-to-toe red and a mask that turned his face into a featureless blob. I found the scene with his molesting Uncle Ernie to be extremely uncomfortable to watch.
I keep coming back to how badly Tommy was abused by almost everyone around him when he was catatonic: the uncle, the bullying cousin, the doctors and specialists that kept poking at him and subjecting him to invasive and painful treatments. Should his parents have been more forceful in keeping him safe and drawing a line beyond which nobody could go, or did even a faint hope of a cure justify going to any extremes? How much did their own guilt at their part in traumatizing Tommy push them to try anything?
But seriously, baked beans? Urgh. Don’t do drugs, kids.
I saw the show live about ten years ago and the actors playing Tommy just wore a white boiler suit a la Pete Townshend in the '70s. Whoever directed the production you saw must have had a… different interpretation.
I’ve already offered this analysis of “Tommy,” so I’ll try not to belabor it.
In my opinion, “Tommy” was an allegory. Young Tommy Walker represented the young generation that grew up in England after World War 2. Many of the kids in that generation grew up alienated from their families and from society (symbolized by Tommy’s deafness and blindness), and searched desperately for some way either to express themselves, to find meaning in their lives, or to connect with others.
In the musical, Tommy’s parents drag him to a church and to the Acid Queen… but I think this is merely a symbol for the way many young English kids in the Sixties turned to religions of various stripes (especially Eastern ones) or drugs in search of peace or enlightenment.
Some young English kids of that generation found release in rock and roll. And I believe Pete Townshend used pinball as a metaphor for rock and roll.
The predicament Tommy Walker faced after becoming a pinball champ and getting his senses back is precisely the predicament rock musicians like Townshend and John Lennon faced in 1968: they’d gained fame and success by doing something fun and silly, and in the process they won millions of fans and admirers who were looking to THEM for guidance! Tommy, like Lennon and Townshend, didn’t really know how or where to lead his followers, but he tried his best to help them learn what he’d learned… and then found that his “followers” weren’t really interested in what he told them to do, because it was just too much trouble.
Actually, “Pinball Wizard” got added after critic Nik Cohn heard a version of the album and thought it was just OK. Townshend knew Cohn was a pinball addict and wrote “Pinball Wizard” and stuck it on side C, after which Cohn decided the album was great. (I still think your interpretation makes sense, though… sometimes metaphors work even if they aren’t consciously intended.)
The religious aspects are toned down considerably. The lyric “Don’t want no religion, and as far as we can tell…” is changed. Tommy is presented as a pop culture phenom rather than a new messiah.
Also, in the film version the lover kills the husband, while in the play it’s vice versa. I’ve read that the latter was also the original idea on the album, but I think the film version makes more sense. Tommy is forced to live a life that Wasn’t Meant to Be while his rich inner life in inhabited by the spirit of his father.
As for my interpretation of the pinball bit, well Tommy spends a lot of time staring at a mirror, right? So perhaps he’s able to see the shiny chrome pinball as a glowing orb that he can control.
Well, by ‘head-to-toe red,’ I mean that the actors wore a red shirt, red pants, and red shoes. I don’t know that there was any particular symbolism to the color apart from wanting the audience to be able to distinguish Tommy from the others on stage, although the mask did an awfully good job of keeping him from blending into the background.
I think of the movie as very much being of its time, and I was interested to see the differences in the stage production, particularly since the 70’s were not my favorite era. There seem to be several possible endings out there, but the staging I saw ended with Tommy locked into the metal structure in which he started, with the mask back over his face, and his anguished parents being reassured that the specialist and his people will care for him and keep trying to get through to him. I’ve been mulling over whether all the events after the mirror is broken were Tommy’s hallucination or his mother’s.
The central theme is certainly alienation, but I wonder if the abuse Tommy suffered at so many hands was a further example of alienation or something else altogether.
As I recall, the production I saw ended on Tommy staring into the mirror with his younger selves staring back at him as they sang “Listening To You” in harmony. The interpretation i’ve always taken from the film and the musical is that that’s the moment where Tommy “finds God” within himself and realizes he doesn’t need to seek enlightenment from drugs or sex or the approval of other people, and that he shouldn’t be seeking to provide it to others because it’s something they need to find for themselves as well.
I also had the pleasure of seeing Roger Daltrey perform it live last year and got a very similar feeling from that performance - the climactic song brought the crowd to its feet and almost felt like a religious experience.
The impression I get from the film, on the other hand, is “Good Lord, people did a lot of drugs in the '70s.”
The baked beans song is called “Champagne”, for the record, and was written specifically for the film - it isn’t included in the original album or the musical. The “smoking mother nature” line is in the original, but Townshend heavily reworked the finale when the musical was written and left it out.
The musical isn’t all that different from the movie. Some scenes are impractical on stage, and were cut, and some songs had the lyrics tweaked but it’s pretty close in concept.
As for the album, some of it is rather boring filler material, some of it is brilliant and some of it is underwhelming. You have to remember how avant-garde the concept of a rock opera was in 1969. The entire side four of the album is my favourite:
Tommy’s Holiday Camp
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Pete and Richard Barnes’ book, The Story of Tommy is worth checking out for some interesting insights about the evolution of the story and the making of the movie. It has tons of great images from the production as well.