The Rear-View Mirror: Tommy (1975)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Admittedly, I didn’t spend all that much time watching films, reading books or playing whatever games that were around in 1975. I had a good excuse: I was only born in June and thus missed half the year anyway, and  my reading, watching and, well, everything skills were decidedly underdeveloped at the time. Which is a shame, because 1975 was a great year, especially for cinema: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest! Barry Lyndon! Jaws! I’m sure even infant me would have found it in himself to coo appreciatively over John Alcott’s sublime cinematography or Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis speech.

But no, I’m afraid this installment of the Rear-View Mirror will be about… baked beans.

Ever since I was a young boy/I ate the orange bean/From Soho down to Brighton/I must have ate them all

Obviously I didn’t watch Ken Russell’s adaptation of The Who’s rock opera Tommy as a newborn, though it might explain a thing or two. I didn’t even watch until I was into my 30s, by which time I’d seen quite a few strange films. Nonetheless, I don’t think I was prepared for the drug-addled weirdness of Tommy. They showed it one evening late on Arte, a French-German TV channel focusing on all kinds of cultural programming: in an evening, you could see Costa Gavras classics from the ’70s, a documentary about Petra, Jordan, and a collection of raunchy counter-culture cartoons. Or, indeed, you could see a psychedelic rock opera with cameos from the likes of Tina Turner, Eric Clapton (as the leader of a Marilyn Monroe-themed cult, no less!) and the decidedly less musical Jack Nicholson as a handsome doctor with a twinkle in his eye. (It is perhaps understandable that Nicholson’s big 1975 part wasn’t this one.)

I remember myself and my wife being nonplussed from the very beginning, as Tommy started with a text plate that laid out the entire plot of what we were about to see. Yes, the film began by telling us exactly what was going to happen – but that was perhaps the last time Tommy was reasonably coherent. I’d previously seen one other Ken Russell film, his 1980s sci-fi weirdness Altered States, but that one had clearly been watered-down Russell. Tommy operated on an entirely different level of WTF?!-ery.

And no scene was a better illustration of this than the one where Tommy’s mother, played by the Swedish-American actress Ann-Margret, hallucinates herself being half-drowned in a deluge of detergent foam, chocolate and, yes, baked beans splashing from her TV. Even if you get the scene’s parodic intent, it makes it no weirder to be watching, at 2am in the morning, a ’70s sex symbol, ahem, cavorting in a less and less appealing partly-orange, mostly-brown sludge that no longer looked even faintly like baked beans. They hadn’t warned us of this in that initial synopsis text.

Nobody knows what it's like/To be a baked bean

I cannot really recommend Tommy, though it may have its appeal for fans of The Who, Ken Russell or possibly baked beans. It’s not the cup of culture that I want 1975 to be remembered for. But that near-biblical deluge of baked beans is seared into my synapses, and I wanted to share at least some of that joy. Have a good Friday – you’re welcome.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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