Rockin’ in Technicolor: Robert Stigwood and the Right and Wrong Ways to Make a Rock Opera Part 1

By MG Marshall

Robert Stigwood, you mad, magnificent, Australian bastard! Stigwood was a UK-based music executive and theatrical producer, likely best known now for managing acts like the Bee Gees and Cream throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, and for his successful stage productions of shows like Hair, Pippin, and Jesus Christ Superstar. Later in the ‘70’s, working as a movie producer, Stigwood would be responsible for some of the biggest, most enormously successful music-driven movies of the decade, including the movie adaption of Jesus Christ Superstar, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease. He even worked as a soundtrack producer on The Empire Strikes Back. Then again, he also churned out crap like Moment by Moment, Staying Alive, and Grease 2, so the man’s track record isn’t exactly spotless. But today, I’ve elected to talk about what I think are two of Stigwood’s most absolutely batshit insane offerings because, well it’s me we’re talking about here, and these are the kinds of movies that amuse and fascinate me.

First up is Tommy, adapted from The Who’s seminal 1969 rock opera, and directed by prolific British filmmaker- and utter madman in his own right- Ken Russell. For those who haven’t heard the album, seen the stage show, or the movie, the story follows- of course- a young man named Tommy. In the early days of World War II, Tommy’s father- R.A.F. Captain Walker (played by Robert Powell, of Jesus of Nazareth)- goes off to war, leaving behind his pregnant wife (Ann-Margret). Soon, Captain Walker is shot down, and presumed dead. This devastates his wife (whom the credits inform me is named Nora, but I’ll be damned if you ever actually hear her name…) and her sorrow is only increased when she gives birth on the day victory is declared. Years later, Nora has moved on and found comfort in the arms of a new husband, Frank (the late, great, drunken Oliver Reed). Unfortunately for them, this is also right about the time that Captain Walker decides to turn back up, very much alive, heavily scarred, and exceptionally pissed off that he’s been replaced. An argument ensues, and Frank kills Captain Walker in the scuffle. (Although, in the album this is actually reversed, with Captain Walker murdering the stepfather.) Tommy witnesses this horrible deed and suffers a severe traumatic shock, going psychosomatically blind, deaf and mute, based on his parents’ commands that he “never heard it, never saw it, won’t say nothing to no one ever in his life.” His parents, stricken with guilt, spend the entirety of Tommy’s childhood pawning him off on various abusive relatives and dragging him to doctors, religious cults, and even prostitutes in unsuccessful attempts to cure him. When Tommy is a teenager (now played by The Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey, even though he is clearly in his mid-30’s…) it’s discovered that he has a great talent for playing pinball, despite his disability. Tommy’s status as a pinball prodigy somehow propels his family to wealth and fame, especially after he defeats the current pinball champion, “The Pinball Wizard” (played, flamboyantly as you’d imagine, by Elton John). When Tommy finally awakens from his stupor, he claims to have found enlightenment through his experiences, and becomes a new Messiah to his legions of pinball-loving fans, a situation that his stepfather is all too eager to exploit.

In adapting this… let’s say unique story from record to film, one thing you can’t fault Stigwood’s production on is its sheer size and scope. Recorded in “Quintaphonic Sound,” an early five-channel stereo process developed by sound engineer John Mosely, this movie just sounds enormous. It reminds me a lot of the whole “Wall of Sound” effect that Phil Spector used for groups like The Crystals, The Ronettes, and The Righteous Brothers. In every respect, the instrumentation and the arrangements are bigger and better than those featured on The Who’s original album. The vocals, however, are kind of a different story.

It’s not that the singing is bad, exactly. In fact, the members of the cast who actually are professional singers all do a fine job. Roger Daltrey, though obviously too old for the part, brings his usual intense, raspy energy to the role of Tommy once he’s finally allowed to sing, Eric Clapton is mellow-voiced and possibly heavily medicated, and Elton John is incredibly enjoyable as basically a Bizarro evil version of his over-the-top stage persona. But the real stand out for me has to be Tina Turner’s jittery, crazy-eyed turn as “The Acid Queen,” the drug dealer/prostitute that Tommy’s stepfather brings him to as an attempted cure. She’s both hilarious and kinda terrifying. The problems, however, start when you have to listen to the actors and non-singers in the cast try their hands at this, but thankfully it’s not all bad. Ann-Margret doesn’t have the strongest singing voice in the world, but she really gives it her all, lending a great deal of emotion and pathos to her role and making it easy to overlook the flaws in her singing technique. Likewise, Keith Moon, The Who’s drummer, is no singer but he brings the appropriate creepiness needed to play Tommy’s abusive uncle, Ernie. Jack Nicholson, as the doctor, is clearly trying his bestbut the man just can’t sing worth a damn at all. He’s much better suited to the other half of what his role calls for- silently smoldering and giving Ann-Margret (and the viewer) the bedroom eyes.

And then there’s Oliver Reed. Oh, dear god, is there ever Oliver Reed. I can’t begin to overstate how much fun it is to watch Oliver Reed in this. Perpetually greasy-haired and intoxicated-looking (which, knowing Reed, is absolutely for real), there isn’t a single frame he’s in where he isn’t either mugging for the camera or doing some acting business in the background and trying to pull focus. It has to be one of the most lovable performances I’ve ever seen for a character who’s an utterly despicable bastard for the entire duration. And this is somehow only enhanced by the fact that Oliver Reed has the absolute worst singing voice I’ve ever heard in a musical. He is never once on pitch- hell, sometimes he’s not even hitting a note at all. If you thought Russell Crowe was bad in Les Miserables, then you haven’t heard anything yet. And it only endears me to Reed’s performance even more, against my better judgment.

Ken Russell directs with all his usual flair and obsessions- the expressive lighting, the heavily stylized costumes, props and sets, his own odd brand of commentary on consumerism, the explicit sexuality, and the oh-so-many weird, inexplicable images he wants to burn into your brain for the rest of your life. Tina Turner transforming into a giant, cyborg hypodermic needle. Keith Moon sitting atop an enormous organ/cash register hybrid and playing it with his feet. A weirdo religious cult led by Eric Clapton that worships a plaster statue of Marilyn Monroe. Elton John, decked out in a pair of boots that look ten feet tall, playing a pinball machine that happens to also have a keyboard. Surreal TV commercials spray Ann-Margret in a disgusting torrent of baked beans, detergent, and chocolate sauce. Roger Daltrey, re-imagined as the Messiah, giving a sermon atop a mount made of huge pinballs.

But more than the strange imagery, it’s the editing and the choreography that really make this thing work, both as a movie and as a rock opera. This thing just speeds by, despite running close to two hours, and a large part of that is due to the rapid-fire editing and constantly fluid camerawork. There are so many moving parts to every scene in this movie that it really feels alive, and timed to the music playing out on the soundtrack. It’s nearly perfect as a translation from song to screen, because it focuses equal energy on both music and imagery and makes the two completely inseparable. Which is a little more than I can say for Stigwood’s next star-studded musical extravaganza, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band…

MG Marshall