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Ken Russell films

Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

"When Brit cinema mostly opted for dullness, Ken Russell was showing us a film that was daring and risky and mad" (Peter Bradshaw, 22 Nov 2019, The Guardian)

Tommy, Ken Russell's film on consumerism and false gods, directed in 1975. 

Pete Townsend of The Who's rock opera album brought to cinema.  It was becoming fashionable to produce concept albums and Pete Townsend surpassed most by coming up with a n interesting story line, even if it at times does not fit together. Townsend's story is inspired by the blues song Eyesight for the Blind by blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson.  Russell shifted some of the scenes to make some more sense of the plot, and the setting moved from after the first world war to after the second world war.  Russell says the story "reminded me of a screenplay I'd written called The Angels which was about false religions which I was told was uncommercial and I couldn't get finance so I saw this... it could be an amalgam of the two" (Russell interviewed by Mark Kermode, Odyssey Quest, 2004).

Oliver Reed in Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

The story concerns a child Tommy who witnesses his father being murdered by his mother and lover Oliver Reed.

Ann-Margret in Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

His mother (who works in a ball-bearing factory) tells him not to tell what he saw or heard, so he becomes deaf, dumb and blind. He does have one gift, he can play pinball.  The pinballs are identical to the ball-bearings from his mother's factory, and to the device later put in his eyes at the instigation of the doctor, Jack Nicholson.

Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy Marilyn Monroe

The film is a series of visual images.  In the church Marilyn Monroe replaces the Virgin Mary and under her image blondes in Monroe masks give the sacrament of whisky and pills.

Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

But she turns out to be a fallen idol.

 Tina Turner the acid queen in Ken Russell Tommy

Next Tina Turner is the acid queen.

Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy  Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

"If your child ain't all he should be now, this girl will put him right. I'll show him what he could be now, just give me one more night" sings the Acid Queen but her attempt to awaken his senses with sex and drugs also fails.

Elton John Pinball Wizard in Ken Russell Tommy

Tommy emerges as a pinball wizard defeating the previous champion, Elton John, and leads to Tommy becoming a new messiah with a mass following.   His parents exploit this.

Ken Russell Tommy   Ann-Margret in Ken Russell Tommy

Ann-Marget Ken Russell Tommy

Ann Margret in Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

The famous attack on commercialism with Ann-Margret writhing in a sea of beans is based on the Who's album "The Who Sell Out" where Daltry appears eating Heinz Beans etc to attack commercialism- this scene with Ann-Margret is the one the most people ask me if I can send them more photos. Russell himself did advertisements for baked beans and soap suds- in his advert, to show how the soap suds simply disappeared down the sink he filmed the suds being pumped into the sink then reversed the film (from DVD commentary).

Roger Daltry The Who

Roger Daltry on the cover of  "The Who Sell Out".

Ann Margret in Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

During the film there were a number of accidents. Ann-Margret cut herself while filming the soapsuds episode (turning the suds red).  Ann-Margret says "my hand went to the TV screen and the cut glass sliced into it.  Dripping with blood I was quickly wrapped in a blanket and carried off the set, and then rushed to the hospital, where doctors took twenty-seven stitches to close the wound... [then] I shot a scene with my arm hidden under a table".

Tommy becomes a messiah figure to his followers until they realise they also have to become deaf, dumb and blind.

Roger Daltry in Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

Daltry underwater almost drowned before the crew realised he was in trouble and dived in to help him.  Daltry burnt himself when running through the fire and the later takes(below) show him holding his injured arm.

Roger Daltry in Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

 Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy  - fire

Most spectacularly when filming on Southsea pier a fire broke out seriously damaging the pier.  Ken filmed the real fire (above) in part of Daltry´s running through fire sequence.

 Spoof of Tommy- Pommy

Monty Python spin-off Rutland Weekend Television did a short spoof version, Pommy.


The Who obviously appear.  Roger Daltry is Tommy and fortunately he does not speak for most of the film.  Apart from Daltry, Keith Moon is the only acting Who member, relishing his role as the child molesting Uncle Ernie. 

"The film’s biggest mistake was in Daltrey’s lead characterization, as he vacuously played dumb but never convincingly. The result is a pop culture film of great visual splendor that brings back memories of that rock era, but not all the memories are pleasant" (Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, 24 Feb 2006, click here).

Other rock stars such as Elton John (Pinball Wizard) and Tina Turner (the Acid Queen) are spectacular in their video segments. Elton John was a possibility for a role in Ken Russell's Rainbow before he chickened out, but Russell did direct his Nikita video (where the Pinball Wizard boots reappear).

Eric Clapton in Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

Eric Clapton was too drugged out so Arthur Brown was brought in to make the scene more interesting. 

Ann-Margret in Ken Russell Tommy

Oliver Reed appears as the Father, Ann-Margret as the mother (she was nominated for an Oscar for the role).

Jack Nicholson in Ken Russell Tommy

Jack Nicholson as the doctor, was only on set for a day, "it was all we could afford" (Roger Daltry from Press Promo on DVD extras).

Victoria Russell as Sally Simpson in Ken Russell film of Tommy  Victoria Russell as Sally Simpson in Ken Russell film of Tommy

Ken Russell's daughter Victoria plays Sally Simpson.

Editing is by Stuart Baird. Cinematography is by Dick Bush and after Dick Bush walked off Ronnie Taylor. Costumes are by Shirley Russell.  The Monroe statue was by Paul Dufficey (from Ken Russell interview in DVD extras).

Ken used in total a crew of 88.  Tommy cost $2 million and took 22 weeks to shoot.  When Russell made Tommy he suddenly had a major commercial success on his hands.  Disappointingly is was followed up by a cash-in movie Lisztomania, and box-office failure of Valentino removed his commercial tag.

Ken Russell cameo in Tommy

Russell can be seen in a wheelchair cameo.

Ken Russell Tommy credit

All images from the DVD of the film, plus the cover of The Who Sell Out and the Pommy poster.

Best Image

Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

The church worshipping Marilyn Monroe with the row of Marilyns walking down the aisle.

Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

Dancers in gas masks in the London blitz sequences.  The war sequences were originally going to be black and white.

Roger Daltry in Ken Russell Tommy 

Running through the mustard fields.

Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

Best Scene

Tina Turner in Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

Tina Turner's Acid Queen.  She says "I was offered the role of the Acid Queen....  Ike [Turner] kept me on a very short leash, so it was exciting whenever there was an opportunity to get out from under his shadow.  I was thrilled... I brought my own clothes to the set, just in case I didn't like the costumes.  Thank God!  You should have seen how they would have dressed me... The costume designer, Russell's wife Shirley, said that I could wear them, although she came up with the Acid Queen's clunky platform shoes.  Ken Russell loved the way I looked" (Tina Turner, My Love Story, 2018 chapter 5).

"Tina Turner’s Acid Queen sequence is a mini-masterpiece of visual inventiveness and dramatic cohesion, helped in no small measure by Turner’s extraordinary showmanship" (Jonathan Rosenbaum, British Film Institute, 27 Nov 2019, click here).

Elton John in Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy 

Elton John's pinball wizard. Tiny Tim and Lou Reed were names mentioned but never seriously considered for the pinball wizard, whereas Stevie Wonder was Pete Townsend's choice and Wonder came close to accepting the role (from Pete Townsend interview on DVD extras).  Ken Russell says David Essex carried out a screen test for the role (Ken Russell interview on DVD extras).



Ken Russell Tommy 

He descends on Hells Angels from the air (a heavens angel), here reflected in the glasses.  He did his own stunts apart from jumping off a chruch tower in the hang-glider.

Tommy has a lot of references including to Ken's BBC days (the waterfall sequences) as well as to Mahler (Robert Powell and the rocks). The train scene is similar to Fenby´s arrival in Delius, and the blind and paralysed Delius is a proto-Tommy. The mirrors with the young child could be from Bartok, the corridors remind you of the convent in The Devils.

Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

There are snakes crawling on a skeleton.  The same image occurs in Russell's Gothic.

Roger Daltry in Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

Roger Daltry in Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

Daltry appears in a number of Christ images including crucifixion, walking on water, and running on the beach with the fishermen ("I will make you fishers of men").

Rogert Daltry in Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

The "cure" imagery is similar to that in Kubrick´s A Clockwork Orange from 1971.

Ken Russell film of The Who Tommy

Russells's Brief Encounters homage.



Other films released in the same year include Star Wars, Annie Hall and The Spy Who Loved Me as well as Russell's Lisztomania.

Star Wars  Annie Hall  The Spy Who Loved Me  Lisztomania


More films

Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore


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