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Tommy (1975)


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#1 Tim Partridge

Tim Partridge
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Posted 29 December 2009 - 09:26 AM

I revisited this gem the other night on DVD. I still think it's one of the most visually exciting films ever made.

Tommy for me also demonstrates why I hold the 70s as the greatest era in cinematography. I find the lighting is often theatrical in Tommy and drug induced to the max, like later Fellini on acid, but is also really natural when it needs to be. It's the boldness of shot compositions and lighting that really excite. The lower key sequences using shadow are strikingly effective, and I think the entire ACID QUEEN segment with Tina Turner is an hallucigenic, visual masterpiece (Madonna obviously thought so too when she did MUSIC INFERNO). It mixes diffused lighting (for the syringe mask) with very dramatic hard light, and is shot often handheld with very wide angle lenses and extreme zooms. The double exposure work with crash zooms on ACID QUEEN still blows me away not for it's technical brilliance but more for it's conceptual inspiration. It's scatty, scruffy yet elegant and majestic all at once, to my mind a trait exclusive to the 70s. It's also been imitated to death many times since.

According to the DVD commentary by Ken Russell, Dick Bush was the original DP but left the production after wishing to reshoot the ACID QUEEN sequence, which he felt could have been done better. Russell explains that it was an impossibility as Tina Turner had already left the English production and flown back to the USA. The film's camera operator, Ronnie Taylor, replaced Bush. I have to admit that I cannot comprehend how high one's standards must be to want to reshoot something as image perfect as the ACID QUEEN sequence! I think it's Bush's finest moment, and the strongest evidence as to why so many big visually attentive directors of that era wanted to work with him. His work with Russell particularly was always gold.

I think that all of Ken Russell's films are elaborately designed, visual feasts (60s and 70s work particularly), but Tommy's pop visuals stick out for me. Particularly as I think Alan Parker tried to do Tommy with the (in my opinion) horrible movie version of Pink Flloyd's The Wall, proving all of Russell's sophistication without ever understanding it (again,l just my opinion).

Tommy makes great viewing with that other mid70s pop cinema masterpiece, The Man Who Fell to Earth, but also sits very well next to other Russell music driven films such as Music Lovers, Mahler and Litzomania.
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