Cinema theory for the under-10s

My nieces, who are both geniuses, were very clear about what DVD they wanted to watch with their Aunty Boo last weekend.

Was it A Bug’s Life? No.
Pee Wee’s Playhouse? Nup.
How about Mulan? Indeedy no, although it’s one of Aunty Boo’s favourites.
Duck Soup? Certainly not.

The movie they wanted to see was Tommy.

For those who haven’t seen it, it’s what people in the ‘70s would have called a ‘rock opera’, was written and performed by The Who, directed by Ken Russell, and has some seriously psychedelic scenes in it. Like every single scene.

So rather than settling back for a long perve upon the golden beauty that is Roger Daltrey with his chest out and tight white pants, I had the, ah, interesting task of explaining Tommy to a 5-year old and an 8-year old. Apparently my sister had been scrolling through the highlights with them last week, so I was cleared for parental guidance – except for one detail – which highlights?

I haven’t seen it in years, so all I could think was potentially troubling was the Acid Queen sequence. This disturbed me for years as a child, but I turned out fine, right?

(As an aside, I could watch what I liked when I was little – and saw Tommy when I was really young – but had two older sisters to explain the ins and outs of most things to me. The only thing I was forbidden to watch were the sex scenes, at which I was firmly, and humiliatingly sent from the room. Thus for years I thought Dr Frank-N-Furter strutting around in drag, murdering Columbia’s lover and marrying Rocky was completely OK, whereas the idea of him jumping into bed with Janet, then Brad was BEYOND THE PALE. But I digress.)

So to recap:
Tommy is struck deaf, dumb and blind when his stepfather (played at his drunken, tuneless best by Oliver Reed) murders his fighter pilot father after he returns from the war.

Tommy’s mother (in a spectacular performance by Ann-Margret wearing a variety of insane outfits and grimaces) tries to cure him through several means: they visit a revivalist church of Marilyn Monroe; he’s babysat by his Cousin Kevin (who tortures him) as well as his Uncle Ernie (who molests him); the Acid Queen (who injects him with drugs in a giant Metropolis-style machine covered in syringes) and the Specialist (played by the young Jack Nicholson in a short, but phhwwwoooarararrrr perfomance – who finds there’s nothing wrong with him).

After this he becomes the Pinball Wizard, his mother’s TV vomits soap suds, baked beans and chocolate, and he becomes the new messiah. Much more happens, but that’s it in a nutshell.

It became apparent that the kids hadn’t seen much of it at all, except for the all-singing all-dancing highlights, and were a bit hazy on the plot. As an ex-film student, former animation lecturer and all-round cinema wanker, having the essentials of such a great film reduced to fast-forwarded snippets is like having Apocalypse Now abridged by Lolcats (‘I iz in yr ‘Nam, fukn with yr Conrad. I can haz mind-altering drugs kthxbye’ ha ha that might be quite funny. Anyway.)

So I took upon myself to explain some of the salient parts. This went quite well for a while. They took the father’s murder on the chin, and comprehended how hilarious Oliver Reed is. Even the symbolism went down superbly, even though there was a bit of a debate about whether Ann-Margret was making pinballs or weapons in the factory. Then we got to the Acid Queen, which I hastily scrolled on.

Me: So his parents take him to see Tina Turner who tries to cure him with, er, with some drugs. She’s a kind of gypsy woman who works in his stepfather’s, ah, nightclub.

They took this well, without comment. Then we got to Cousin Kevin.

Nieces: Oooh, Cousin Kevin! Hurray! We know Cousin Kevin!!

Me: (thinks) Whew.

Cousin Kevin proceeds to drown Tommy in the bath, put nails on the toilet seat, hang him on the wardrobe door and blast him with a fire hose from the top of a two-storey building. I look over at the girls, whose eyes are perfect ‘o’s.

Big L: We didn’t see this bit.

Me: (thinks) Shit!

Then we arrive at the Uncle Ernie scene.

Little Z: We didn’t see this one…

Oho! Not so smart after all – so I jump on the remote straight away.

Me: Well now, he’s babysat by his Uncle Ernie, who’s a bit of a, ah, pervert. Let’s just say he’s yukky.

This seemed to pass muster.

Then we got to (for the girls) the most perplexing scene. Despite the fact that he can’t see, hear or speak, Tommy can’t stop staring at the mirror. In his reflection, he becomes two Tommies, then three in different colours. Then his father appears, carrying a big white orb. The mirror-Tommy in white gestures for him to come through, and he climbs through into a caryard stacked high with smashed cars. The mirror-Tommy disappears, and he realises he’s still deaf, dumb and blind. Staggering around, he finds a pinball machine and starts to play like a madman.

The girls were all astonishment. Who was the other Tommy in white? What did that represent? Where was he? How did he get there? Was it a dream, or real? What was his Dad holding? Why could he see, and then not?

Let it go on the record that my nieces are as sharp as tacks. Nothing escaped their notice. I reckon they’d give Margaret & David a run for their money, the little monkeys. And, like the youthful Aunty Boo, all sorts of drug-taking, torture, litres of baked beans being writhed upon and bum notes from Oliver Reed were totally fine – but someone stepping through a mirror? HANG ON ONE COTTON-PICKIN’ MINUTE.

At last Elton John hoved into view for the Pinball Wizard song, and I could relax while we enjoyed a good, G-rated knees-up. Cut to Ann-Margret off chops in her totally white bedroom, while the kids roll with laughter at her Watusi.

Thank Christ – look at the time! Time to pull on fluffy PJs, brush the fangs and jump into bed with a Dr Seuss. And hopefully have sweet dreams.

As for the aftermath? Well my youngest niece has decided to change the theme of next year’s birthday party. She had originally chosen a disco theme, with her dressing as Elvis. Now it’s going to be Tommy. I look forward to hearing about it.

9 thoughts on “Cinema theory for the under-10s

  1. I saw Hairlive in New York, original run,but to this day I’ve never seen Tommy. Perhaps I should run out and rent/buy it? The music is still cool after all these years.I like your nieces. Talkin Bout My Generation!!And Lilly says to tell you we conversed on her blog and you need to read it and say something because we did it because you asked us to. Actually she didn’t say ‘says,’ she said ‘asks you politely.’ Or something similar.

  2. I haven’t seen the movie either. How did I miss out on this?! Knew of the musical of course. Oh, and I’ve seen Hair on stage too but it was in Auckland… New Zealand… don’t think I can compete with Mai on that one.Loved the lolcats. There’s a whole post there! How many movies could you do? can haz morr plz?

  3. Great post, GS. You must love those nieces to pieces. I only heard the original Tommy album for the first time a couple of years ago and it hangs together very well. The only Ken Russell film I really love is Women In Love. But Tommy is pretty good. Liztomania was almost a sequel.

  4. I god, I laughed so hard at lolcatz meets Apocalypse Now, I snorted tea out of my nose and made my co-workers aware of the fact that I was reading blog and not, as such, technically, working.

  5. Actually I reckon we should set up a database, like lolcatz meets IMDB.I can think of a few to start with.Supersize me: “I can has cheezburger. Three timez daily all munth? Kthx”Delicatessen – “I can has humanburger? I payz you grainz. Kthx”I want to do more but my brain doesn’t work this morning. Clearly Star Wars synopsis would start with “Space Kitteh iz rebeling against evil Galactik Empiah”But I can’t think of any more…

  6. K: I guess I’ll go as the Acid Queen then – with quivering lip!Mai: I hear and obey!EB: please please go rent it! You may need to get a few bottles of wine (or other substances) to go with…LL: I haven’t seen too many Ken Russell flicks, desppite the fact he’s one of the most prolofic directors around! I do recall enjoying lair of the White Worm – did it have a young & nubile Hugh Grant in it or am I dreaming??Bek: oh yar we could have a whole website! Also great events of history, or scientific breakthroughs…hmmm

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