Recognised as one of the finest rock and roll films of all time, Ken Russell’s Tommy is a film that perfectly captures the liberal philosophy and counter-cultural attitude of the genre. Boisterously fun whilst carrying a bohemian love for its characters and worldview, Tommy, released in tandem with The Who’s fourth studio album of the same name, is a unique film following a deaf, mute and blind boy who becomes a master pinball player.
Played by the lead singer of The Who, Roger Daltrey, as the fame of the title character grows to enormous levels, his senses return and he becomes an evangelical figure of hope and self-discovery. Displayed in totally excessive style by the eccentric director of The Devils, Ken Russell, Tommy is a powerful psychedelic experience that examines religion and contemporary society with wit and a vibrant passion for the game of pinball.
Starring a whole host of famous musicians, including the likes of Elton John, Keith Moon, John Entwistle, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Tommy also attracted the interest of the likes of David Bowie, Barbra Streisand and Mick Jagger before Ken Russell decided on the final cast. Tommy also stars icons of cinema including Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson, with The Shining actor telling Sight and Sound magazine in 1974 that he agreed to do the film because “Russell’s films intrigue me…I want to find out what makes them tick”.
There is perhaps no role in the film as strange as that of Tina Turner’s ‘Acid Queen’ however, with the iconic singer playing an erratic prostitute who deals in prophetic tabs of LSD. In the bizarre story of the film, Tommy’s parents take him to the Acid Queen to see if her psychedelic efforts can rid him of his sensory disabilities. Representing the futile efforts that drugs bring to curing physical illness, Tina Turner’s character is one riddled with metaphorical meaning as per the notes of The Who guitarist Pete Townshend.
As Townshend stated in the book The Who by Numbers, the song ‘Acid Queen’ that shares its name with Tina Turner’s character is “not just about acid: it’s the whole drug thing, the drink thing, the sex thing wrapped into one big ball…She represents this force”. Reflective of the societal pressures to give in to the debauchery of drink, drugs and sex, it is no surprise that Mick Jagger was originally offered the role of the Acid Queen before it was given to Tina Turner.
Bathed in a red tinge, the scene itself is like something out of a Terry Gilliam nightmare, featuring a seemingly possessed Tina Turner as she takes Tommy by the hand and leads him to her ‘treatment room’. Here she dons an elaborate metal mask and, taking a novelty-sized syringe, injects the title character in the midst of a psychedelic musical number. It all comes across as one paralyzing fever dream as Tina Turner transforms into a fantastical metal knight before spinning uncontrollably in a red blur and finally releasing Tommy from her ethereal charm.
Reflecting the idiosyncrasies of one of rock and rolls finest ever bands, Tina Turner joins the impressive ensemble cast of Tommy and helps to create one of its most memorable and extraordinary moments.