The Planets (Ken Russell, 1952) & Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975)

by Douglas Buck July 27, 2021 7 minutes (1656 words) Digital Projection La Cinémathèque Québécoise/part of their two-month long MUSIQUE! program

Similar to their Erotique Cinema series a few summers back, the CQ’s latest long-form ‘Musique!’ program is a kind of willy-nilly thrown together smorgasbord of entries that fit the overall general theme (in this case, musicals, or films that deal with music in one way or another), screened each night without much concern for order – be it chronological, or inter- or intra-textually linked – which, honestly, is fine by me. As much as I bitch about the CQ’s indifferent attitude towards film projection, or concern for accurately presenting to their paying public what medium they’re screening (as well as the indignant responses I’ve been met with when bringing it up to them, understandable perhaps from a dissatisfied governmental employee dealing with the grumbling masses all day long, but far less acceptable from a cinematheque employee), I kinda enjoy this loose approach, and this program is a particularly rich lot (of mostly American films, but that’s okay… I haven’t seen a bunch of them); it’s films Hollywood large and indie small, classic and lesser known.

This particular night granted me the opportunity to catch up with two works from one of the irreverent greats, one who admirably mustered up decent- to large-sized budgets for his crazed, oft-heavily-erotic (and oft openly – and joyously — titty-baring and -staring) films (with a number of them — Tommy being no exception – coming with the welcome presence of Oliver Reed, the drunken madman with that naughty glint in his eye who was almost assuredly the perfect muse – and likely stand-in – for the wild man director himself), a filmmaker with at least two inarguable masterpieces in his canon (amongst a swath of overall amazing work) that come immediately to mind (namely, the wicked, religo-erotic agit-prop fever dream known as The Devils, which is not only great, but one of the greatest transformational films ever made, and the brilliantly realized portrait on the sexually-tortured life of Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers … which I’m now wondering as I mention it why it wasn’t part of this series?!).

So… first up was the little seen The Planets, a TV piece put together for the BBC arts program “The South Bank Show”. Clocking in at under an hour, it’s a collage of stock footage Russell matched up with a live recording of Gustav Holst’s similarly named orchestral musical suite, with each of the seven movements broken into the name of a planet in the solar system (and aligned in tone with the ‘character’ of the associated planet – ie, “Mars, the Bringer of War” bursts with grand foreboding, while “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” brings serene sounding strings and a wordless female chorus)… and while the music itself is riveting, Russell’s accompanying experimentalism feels like a pleasing, if minor, creative indulgence, with the director playing around with interesting, sometimes impressive, sometimes cheeky incongruous images of Nazis, fascist Russian military parades, naked women (of course!), surfers daringly navigating overwhelmingly massive waves, and a crucifixion or two (another favorite of the director, seemingly only more pleasing when he can combine naked women with the crucifixion).

Roger Daltrey

While there is some underlying thematics to combine the images under each movement, and it’s an eminently watchable hour, it doesn’t come together anywhere near as resonant and profound as, say, the similar in style 1982 feature doc Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance by Godfrey Reggio, but that’s understandable. This was clearly a tv work for hire for the director, while Reggio’s film burst forth from a director’s vision.

One interesting takeaway for me was just how much composer Brian May clearly lifted from the “Mars” movement in the suite for the bombastic orchestral score for The Road Warrior. In fact, they sound so similar, note by note, I had to check that these sections of Holst’s piece hadn’t been directly used in the Mad Max sequel… nope. It’s all credited to Brian May (perhaps a bit iffy, who cares, it works simply great in the movie!).

Next up (though separately billed… even though The Planets was only an hour long, they charged full admission… tsk, tsk) was the director’s jaw-droppingly indulgent (an entirely game Anne Margaret singing and writhing orgasmically about, humping a soaking wet cushion no less, as she’s bathed in a literal shower of baked beans, anyone?) all-singing rock opera, taking its title and songs (though somewhat re-written by Russell) from the celebrated — if more than a bit overwrought and pretentiously grandiose (as, to be fair, most rock concept albums were, excluding, of course, the mind-blowing “The Wall” by another English band, Pink Floyd, which stands as one of the greatest, most important concept albums ever paid for by a listening public) – double album (is there any other way to do a concept album?) Tommy, about that deaf, dumb and blind kid… who sure plays a mean PIN…BALL (almost impossible not to think of that last part in song).

Ann Margaret

As much as I was familiar with The Who’s album, I can’t say I ever dove headlong in my formative college years like I did with, say, the greatest concept rock album of all time (did I mention Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”?), as, unlike the brilliant political mind behind that – and all the other — Floyd masterworks (with the band officially ending for me directly after the release of the appropriately named “The Final Cut”), namely, Roger Waters, who remains to this day a last hope from that era, with things such as continuing to fight for the release of whistleblower Julian Assange, and openly calling out fascistic oligarchs like Mark Zuckerberg as the evil cancer on the world they are (while the rest of the clueless mainstream faux Left practically celebrates the little damn sociopathic twerp as he censors massive social media platforms), while I’ve always found Pete Townsend’s lyrics to be rip-roaringly catchy (especially as belted out by that powerful, hyper-masculine voice of Roger Daltrey), I’ve also found them perhaps a bit bereft of depth (I mean ‘I spill out like a sewer hole yet still receive your kiss, how can I measure up to anyone after such a love as this?’ certainly sounds great, and is super-fun to drunk-sing along with, but… not particularly intellectually resonant), except there one real stab (and a successful one, I might add) at a political anthem with the great (and still deeply resonant in its simple cautionary equations on the corrupt before’s and after’s of revolution), “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

While I always knew of the rock fable of Tommy as being critical of the emptiness of celebrity and celebrity-obsession, as well as commenting on the absurdity of religious worship, it never quite captured me (other than as catchy individual songs off the radio) and even seemed a bit thematically easy; surface, even… so it was intriguing to see a few immediate links with the also England-conceived Waters-written “The Wall” album, such as the central male figure of each (Pink in The Wall, Tommy in Tommy) having the defining event that starts off his wild path (into eventual celebrity isolation – self-imposed for Pink, psychosomatic for Tommy) in each defined by the traumatizing loss of the (fighter pilot) father he barely knew (yet continued to idolize and be haunted by) to World War I.

Tina Turner

Russell’s completely all-song version of Tommy is crazed, filled with an enjoyably wild set of cameos — from musicians like Eric Clapton, a very amusing Elton John, The Who themselves, Tina Turner (as the “Acid Queen”, with her song providing a particularly amusing and sexy moment) and even Jack Nicholson, with all of them all in and completely engaged (including stars Anne Margaret, who is feverishly maniacal all the way through, and Reed, who isn’t cowed for a moment by the fact that he can’t sing a lick) and it’s all amusingly over-the-top (can’t believe this crazy film was a box office success! Different times, that’s for sure). The score is incredibly loud (props to the CQ for turning up the volume).

And yet… saying all that… as much as I always appreciate Russell’s brazen mania… I couldn’t really connect to the film. The changes to the familiar music (for the sake of translation to film) were a bit off-putting, and Townsend’s synthesizer bridging moments (not on the album) were clunky and lacked inspiration. And without strong dramatic underpinnings, the imagery and indulgence grew a bit… well… overbearing… to the point they started to wear on me by at least the halfway point (other than the aforementioned singing number with Margaret and her relations with those baked bean and that very long sofa pillow which I can’t believe will ever get tiring to return to).

As I sat in the theater, I started to contemplate on if Russell himself ever found a connection to the material. While he’s having great fun with the cinematic craziness, clearly, at its heart, the film lacks the drive and resonance of so much of his greatest work. A dramatic core is drowned out, as if the director was trying to cover up lack of inspiration from the material with gobs of sweet cinematic cotton candy. As already thinly presented as the album’s themes are, they’re lost amongst the pomp and grandiosity; while, in comparison, while Waters might have ended up loathing Alan Parker for his film take on “Pink Floyd The Wall” (which is also playing in this CQ program), I’d argue Parker’s is a much more successful effort, in which the director was clearly reverential to – and inspired by — the material.

Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson

This isn’t to say I’m not glad I finally caught up to “Tommy”. No, it’s just that I wasn’t exactly unhappy when it ended.

The Planets (Ken Russell, 1952) & Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   british cinema   ken russell   musical   oliver reed   the who