RIP Ken Russell
I was midway through High School when my Early Civilization teacher Mr. McCreedy recommended I watch Ken Russell's Rock Opera Tommy.
I'm sure it had to be sparked by the fact that most of my movie-going habits revolved around new Hollywood releases when not rewatching the oeuvre of Spielberg and Lucas.
Or it could have been my much bragged about discovery of my parents' late 60s records, which included The Who, but also obscure psychedelic vinyl dreams like The Electric Prunes.
Years before viewing anything remotely avant-garde, the cinematic suggestion came at the right time in my life. With the exception of a heavily edited-for-television Altered States, it was the first Ken Russell film I'd ever seen and I never forgot the first viewing.
I wish I could brag that I saw the film projected on an Omnimax dome under the influence of a nice closed-door contact high, but I first saw Tommy on a crappy pan-and-scan VHS. I don't even think the sound was stereo. But none of that really mattered. This was not only my first experience with the music from The Who's rock opera, but the eye-popping visuals assault you even with the sound off.
Suddenly Tina Turner wasn't just the leggy comeback queen from Thunderdome or Private Dancer. She was a gypsy - the ACID QUEEN.
Ken Russell commands such a crazy performance from her, it's hard to believe she's only in the movie for one song. It's equally impressive that his assembled dream cast of Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed and Robert Powell are so into being pushed to dramatic extremes.
Suddenly movies had deeper meaning. Thematically it dared me to question religion, society, government, medicine, celebrity culture and commerce. Technically it introduced me to radical montages, gonzo narrative, inventive camerawork and outrageous set pieces. I still marvel, in this age of motion-capture CGI, at the number of optical effects performed in-camera.
Tommy also became the film I subjected a lot of my friends to sit through. In part, this was to show-off the lunacy that it was, but mainly to verify the cool-factor of my teacher.