Whitley Bay Film Festival – Rock musical Tommy and the real Roger Daltry.

Not in front of the children

The opening film for the sixth Whitley Bay Film Festival was a showing of the 1970’s rock musical Tommy. In a town without a cinema, the fortieth anniversary screening of this psychedelic feast for the senses, was at the Whitley Bay Playhouse, which coincidentally started off its own life as a cinema. Roger Daltry himself, the actual star of the movie, and lead singer of the Who, was making a personal appearance to do a question and answer session after the film. This was a real coup for the festival, and added an extra frisson to the evening.

Tommy fans at large

Fans congregated in the foyer where the rather magnificent custom designed pin ball machine ‘Back to the Bay’ by local artist  Paul Harvey was on display. Later that night Matt Morrison was awarded the title of Whitley Bay’s Pinball Wizard as he had achieved the highest score on the refurbished pinball machines which had been sprinkled about the town for the past few weeks. I myself had tried the ‘Demolition Man’ pin ball machine, in the Jam Jar cinema/cafe a couple of weeks ago, but based on that performance I posed no threat to the title holder.

Pinball rides again!

I hadn’t ever seen Tommy but I loved the Pinball Wizard song by Elton John and have always been a fan of playing pinball, which my brother and I used to do years ago in the amusement arcades up and down the North East coast. They have long since disappeared in favour of more soul-less digital machines as the real mechanisms of the pinball machines were tricky and too expensive to fix.
I hadn’t realised Tommy didn’t actually have any dialogue but is entirely in the vein of a two hour long music video, in an era when the music video didn’t yet exist. It is set in 1975, a full six years before the existence of MTV and two years before Saturday Night Fever propelled disco to the forefront of pop culture. Robert Stigwood (Saturday Night Fever) was involved in the film but it is the director Ken Russell’s outrageous vision which prevails. Self indulgent, flawed and far too long it most certainly is, but it also has moments of absolute genius and arresting performances from Oliver Reed, and in particular the unexpectedly amazing Anne Margaret.

Anne Margaret – beautiful and bonkers!

Often seen only as a Hollywood sex kitten, Anne Margaret showed that you can be beautiful and sexy as well as complicated and in fact completely mad and bad as a woman all at the same time. The film is like one big drug induced roller coaster trip, a surreal dream scape which is nothing if not shockingly original. Tommy is about the big things. Family, love, religion, death, fame, disability, deceit, drugs and rock music. Who could forget Tina Turner as the Acid Queen injecting LSD into Tommy to try and cure him of his deaf, dumb and blindness. I have to point out here that Tina was probably the world’s first twerker – long before Miley Cyrus came on the scene.

Tina Turner is the Acid Queen

There was in fact a school of thought at the time which held that taking mind bending drugs was a good way of releasing your inhibitions and dealing with medical problems. Oh yes.
Another image which sticks in my head from the film is Anne Margaret off her head on champagne (and probably other things) rolling around in a white room, being covered in Rex baked beans which shot out at her from the TV in an impressive orange torrent.

Oliver Reed as Tommy’s dodgy stepdad.

Equally beguiling was Oliver Reed’s archly lecherous boozy holiday camp rep and Tommy’s step father. Some other notable crazy cameos include Paul Nicholas as Tommy’s evil bully cousin who tries to drown him and then iron him on an ironing board. Later, Jack Nicholson turns up as a highly suspect psychiatrist who takes a shine to the glamorous mother of this poor helpless boy. There are quite a lot of scenes in church with people worshipping at the feet of a giant plaster statue of Marilyn Munroe and Eric Clapton playing the guitar in a kaftan. You get the idea.
Roger Daltry got a bit of a standing ovation when he appeared on stage for his chat with Chris Phipps and he was certainly a charming and relaxed interviewee.

And I said to Keith Moon…

He had been described by Ian La Frenais – the patron of the festival – as a true gent and a geeza and he certainly came across like that. He told how Tommy was his very first acting role and that after that he was bitten by the bug and took whatever parts he was offered in order to be able to learn the trade. He said that he quickly got fed up with being a  movie star as the world of Hollywood was very false and cut throat and he much preferred working as a team in the Who and as part of the music industry. He regaled us with a few Keith Moon stories (the Who’s larger than life drummer who died of an overdose) – he appears in the film as the ‘kiddy fiddler’ Uncle Ernie. It was a memorable evening. A massive slice of Ken Russell’s ‘physcopathic Father Christmas’ offering coupled with the audio assault of the Who in full flood, a host of famous names allowed to indulge their darker sides, and you have a unique cinematic experience not readily forgotten.

Film festival fun