Wednesday, March 11, 2020

An Amazing Filmic Journey

One of the most iconic rock bands of all time steps off the concert stage and onto the silver screen in one of the wildest film trips in cinema history. In Tommy (1975) The Who (guitarist and composer Pete Townshend, lead singer Roger Daltrey, drummer Keith Moon and bass player John Entwistle) bring their 1969 “rock opera” to life with the help of avant garde film director Ken Russell and producer Robert Stigwood (Saturday Night Fever, Grease).

Chock full of wild, wigged out, psychedelic imagery, Tommy is a movie musical like other, a cinematic feast providing a kaleidoscopic palette that brings the rapturous rock melodies of Pete Townshend’s rock masterwork to vivid life.

Director Ken Russell creates a detailed tapestry, a mosaic of dazzling imagery to to match the bold driving excitement of Townsend’s words and music. The production design is lavish, featuring costumes by Russell’s wife and collaborator Shirley (who would receive Oscar nominations for her designs for Agatha and Reds) and dreamlike, colorfully surreal settings.

Oliver Reed as Frank
Ann-Margret as Nora
Roger Daltrey as Tommy

Laden with religious symbolism and New Age iconography—mirrors, ball bearings, pinballs and disco balls juxtaposed with crosses, crucifixes and red poppy flowers—Tommy explores the themes of false idolatry, the exploitation of faith, the commoditization of talent and the superficial allure of fame and fortune in epic fashion.

Like The Miracle Worker’s Helen Keller, Tommy is a deaf dumb and blind kid stumbling through life on instinct and intuition until a sudden breakthrough sends him on a spiritual odyssey. Only his sense of touch is unimpaired as a result of his childhood trauma. Salvation comes through his affinity to the game of pinball (a worldwide craze in the mid 1970s).

"Cousin Kevin": Paul Nicholas

"Fiddle About": Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie

Russell’s flamboyant, over-the-top style often resulted in epic filmic fails, including the glitzy and garish Valentino, The Boy Friend and Lisztomania (which also starred Roger Daltrey but failed to capitalize on Tommy’s success), but Tommy is arguably the auteur’s masterpiece (though others may prefer Women in Love or The Devils). Here, Russell is clearly highly inspired by the material of 1969 rock album.

The Who and Russell invite a bevy of rock, pop and Hollywood stars to help them tell their irreverent and satiric (but often moving) story of the severely traumatized child who becomes “The New Messiah.”

Eric Clapton: "Eyesight To The Blind"

Hired to babysit the disabled Tommy while his middle class parents try to live a normal life, British actor/pop star Paul Nicholas scores in his cameo as evil bully Cousin Kevin, while perverted Uncle Ernie (perfectly played by The Who’s own Keith Moon) pantomimes the sexual abuse of Tommy in broad comedic strokes.

Tina Turner’s nightmarish turn as the Acid Queen is imposing and impressive, and it’s a shame Miss Turner has not done more film work to date (although she would grace the silver screen again memorably in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome a decade later). And glam rock superstar Elton John seems right at home as the Pinball Wizard dethroned by Tommy, and makes that song his very own.

Tina Turner: "Acid Queen"

Tommy earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Ann-Margret for her showy, dazzling and bombastic performance as Tommy’s mother Nora. Tackling the rock music with gusto, the squeaky clean star of State Fair and Bye Bye Birdie, having already swiveled her hips in sync with Elvis Presley (and almost stealing Viva Las Vegas away from the King) a decade earlier, adds dysfunctional femme fatale to her cinematic persona with this iconic performance.

Elton John: "Pinball Wizard"

Margret’s set piece is stunning and unforgettable: As Pinball King Tommy climbs in popularity all over the airwaves, a guilty and drunken Nora patrols her white-on-white bedroom suite draped in white fur and a silvery white formfitting catsuit, in clutching anxiety, trying to avoid her son’s image on the TV. The all-white bedroom is swathed in immaculate white satin and plush white shag carpet. She throws her bottle of Veuve Cliquot at the TV screen and her false white cleanliness is shattered.

Her downward spiral into desecration and filth is explosively materialized as the room is flooded with the stuff of the TV commercials she’s been viewing, first spewing a river of white soap suds, then unlovely geysers of baked beans and dark chocolate. Margret’s Nora writhes and revels in the dirty mess till finally only a small bunch of white carnations she clutches remains clean and pure.

Ann-Margret: "Champagne"

Another outrageous and stunning tableau is built around the song “Eyesight To The Blind”: Guitar-strumming clergyman Eric Clapton leads the Church of Marilyn Monroe, where multitudes are healed by the doomed sex goddess’s own lethal cocktail of booze and pills, administered by eerie Monroe-masked priestesses.

Critics will note that the movie soundtrack is musically inferior to the raw rich tones and driving rhythms of the original album, sung largely by Daltrey and Townshend. Here, we depend on the charisma of the eclectic cast to put over Townshend’s complex rock compositions, with mixed results.

As Tommy’s stepfather Frank, Oliver Reed (who famously wrestled nude with Alan Bates in Russell’s Women in Love) was obviously hired here for his acting chops rather than his vocal aptitude, and that severely damages the film’s musicality (but adds comic relief). We find out exactly why Oliver Reed’s one song as Bill Sikes was cut from Oliver! as we are subjected to his hoarse, atonal warbling throughout the film, ruining some of Townsend’s most melodic tunes!

Jack Nicholson: "Go To The Mirror"

The faulty, flat and breathy rendition of “Go To The Mirror” by the normally in-control Jack Nicholson (who starred as Ann-Margret’s paramour in Carnal Knowledge) as Tommy’s doctor makes Oliver Reed sound like Frank Sinatra in comparison.

Margret belts with passionate abandon, but her voice is more suited to pop and musical theater rather than hard-driving rock, and her camp stylings and and glam visuals are far more stimulating than the vocals captured on the soundtrack.

"Sally Simpson"

As well, the arrangements themselves lack the grit and depth of the beloved original 1969 record with the addition of ’70s-style synthesizers as well as the obligatory orchestral movie scoring (which nevertheless earned Townshend a Best Score Oscar nod).

There are, of course, notable exceptions: The soundtrack is bolstered by Elton John’s powerhouse performance of “Pinball Wizard” which became the film’s biggest chart-topper, and Tina Turner’s exciting interpretation of “Acid Queen” in her own inimitable style.

Daltrey: "Listening To You"

It’s a striking film debut for The Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey in the title role. As Tommy, Daltrey is the embodiment of the rock love god of the 1970s, with cascading blond curls tumbling over his bare tanned shoulders as he soulfully implores his audience to “See me/feel me/touch me/heal me.” (The singer’s muscular physique is shown stripped to the waist at every opportunity, sending 1970s teenage hearts aflutter and shooting adolescent hormones into the stratosphere.)

Not just superficially photogenic, Daltrey reveals a strong affinity for the camera and the medium of film as he commands the screen with all his musical talents at his disposal, resulting in a solid performance.

Though his long association with The Who has remained the backbone of his decades-long career, Tommy gave Daltrey a case of the acting bug. In addition to starring in Ken Russell’s next film, another title role in the disastrous Lisztomania, Daltrey has appeared in dozens of non-musical roles in film and television over the years, including The Legacy, Highlander and CSI.

A harbinger of the MTV music video era just ahead on the horizon, Tommy is one of the first films to match up rock music with cinematic imagery and present a complete narrative. A couple of years later, the epic failure-turned-guilty pleasure-cult classic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, also produced by Stigwood, attempted but failed to capitalize on Tommy’s success and capture audiences. Almost two decades after the film, the rock opera also spawned a Tony Award-winning 1993 musical.

This unforgettable film leaves indelible impressions on the mind and continues to influence pop culture to this day.

This is an entry in RealWeegieMidget’s Pop Stars Moonlighting blogathon. It’s been a delight to cover this great film, and I am looking forward to delving into this rich subject matter as seen through the sharp lenses of my fellow movie bloggers!

Friday, January 10, 2020

An Ode To Urban Paranoia

I’m usually not a huge fan of remakes, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is a notable exception—I find it even more engrossing and entertaining than the original. This retelling of the classic 1956 sci-fi chiller, given a stylish and sophisticated treatment by director Philip Kaufman, provides a time capsule into the late 1970s, but its themes of urban angst and conspiracy are just as valid today.

Spores travel through outer space, pushed on by the solar winds, forming a gelatinous oozing substance and spawning strange flowers from pods feeding on existing flora. A humanlike life form develops from the sweet-smelling flowers, the pods giving birth to human duplicates who suck the life from their progenitors. The pods’ rapid widespread growth, due to cross pollination with other species (including humans!), allows them to take over an entire city virtually overnight.

In the 1970s, aptly nicknamed The Me Decade, loss of identity is the ultimate dread. Assimilation into the hive mind of the establishment is a devastating blow to the children of love and self expression in the newly dawning Age of Aquarius. (Here, the concept of “flower power” is literally turned on its head.)

Donald Sutherland as Matthew Bennell

In the post-hippie, pre-yuppie era of the late 1970s, urban society displayed a preoccupation with the self-help movement (“I’m OK, you’re OK”), an urgent new interest in ecology and environmental concerns, and a collective fear of becoming less human, less individualistic, and succumbing to unbridled capitalism and totalitarianism.

But this film also promotes the invaders’ point of view —that we humans have nearly destroyed our home planet through our mismanagement, and the newcomers who take over will do better. 

The atmospheric production design creates an eerie visual and aural landscape upon which the film’s themes are played out. Dizzyingly crooked camera angles are amplified by the city of San Francisco’s famously steep and hilly terrain, creating an off-kilter reality. There is an homage to film noir with the camera lingering in dark hallways, revealing frightened faces at windows and strange things lurking in the shadows. 

Brooke Adams as Elizabeth Driscoll

The innovative sound design, with unsettling screeching, squealing, crackling, rasping and wheezing effects, enhances the terrifying scenes of the birth of the simulacrums from the bulbous space pods.

The film unfolds in a leisurely fashion, depicting everyday life in the late ’70s city by the Bay, but the normalcy is punctuated by a palpable tension. It’s an elegant buildup of paranoiac suspense as quiet dread gives way to sudden explosions of terror. The vacuous city dwellers in the background are undergoing a crisis we are not privy to. Brief moments of panic subside, resulting in blank faces and business as usual.  

The story is told through a group of compellingly flawed and engaging characters, portrayed by a powerhouse cast. 

Leonard Nimoy as Dr. David Kibner

Prolific Donald Sutherland, who is still working steadily today after over five decades in the business and must have more acting credits than any living actor (On TV, flipping channels, you may glimpse him in fare as wide and varied as 1965’s Die Die My Darling to 2014’s Hunger Games: Mockingjay, with iconic portrayals in films like Don’t Look Now, Klute and Ordinary People in between), is our quirky protagonist here.

As Department of Health restaurant inspector Matthew Bennell, a curly-haired Sutherland strides the crooked San Francisco streets in a flapping trenchcoat, in search of rat turds in the kitchens of fine restaurants and pining for his lovely coworker, scientist Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams).

Jeff Goldblum as Jack Bellicec

Adams, a throaty-voiced beauty and one one of the most intelligent actresses of the decade (she basically gave up her career to raise a family with husband Tony Shalhoub), gives an equally strong performance as the shaken Elizabeth, who discovers that her live-in dentist boyfriend Jeffrey (the handsome Art Hindle) is definitely not quite himself lately. 

Jeffrey is one of many undergoing the same personality change all over the city—a transformation into a cold and emotionless automaton, exhibiting somnambulistic behavior and rendezvousing with strangers for mysterious meetings.

Veronica Cartwright as Nancy Bellicec

Leonard Nimoy is Dr. David Kibner, self help guru and celebrity psychiatrist who calms the cresting fear epidemic in the city, explaining away the furor with '70s pop psychobabble—people fearing they are becoming less human and shutting their feelings off; it’s a “hallucination flu” going around that will all blow over in a day or two.

Smug and all-knowing and holier than thou, Nimoy’s elegantly villainous Kibner is an arrogant prick who’s even more logical and less empathetic than Mr. Spock! 

Art Hindle as Jeffrey

At the Bellicec Mud Baths, Matthew’s friends—neurotic, frustrated writer Jack Bellicec (perfectly played by a young Jeff Goldblum) and his free-thinking wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright of Alien) find an undeveloped body covered in the telltale gelatinous substance. (The unformed creature is tall, the same height as 6’4” Goldblum!)

How does your garden grow?

The transformations from human to alien are unforgettably and terrifyingly portrayed: The grasping tendrils attach themselves to sleeping humans and siphon off their life force to fuel the new life forms. Garbage trucks full of strange cobwebby debris roll through the streets, picking up what’s left of the human race. The scene where Elizabeth’s body disintegrates completely as her essence is assimilated by the invader is particularly vivid.

Fighting to stay awake, the group attempts to blend in with the invaders, showing no emotion. But resistance is futile, to quote the Borgs of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Eventually exhaustion gives way to acquiescence.

Nimoy reassures a terrified Leila Goldoni

“You’re evolving into a new life form,” intones Nimoy’s Kibner gravely, “Born again into an untroubled world, free of anxiety and pain—and love.”

Paranoia pervades as Matthew and company uncover what’s actually happening. When Matthew dials the operator to alert the police and the disembodied addresses him as “Mr. Bennell,” he is aghast: “How do you know my name?” Panic ensues when the group’s wild conspiracy theories prove all too true. 

It's all too much for Nancy

Darkly comedic moments leaven the feverish proceedings: Cartwright’s Nancy is particularly hilarious, especially while pulling a morbidly obese man out of the mud bath and giving him a rubdown; as well as warning Goldblum to steer clear of his unformed double (“Don’t touch it, Jack…you don’t know where it’s been!”).

The battle of the individual vs. society depicted here is just as relevant today, as progress and technology and media attempt to put society on the same wavelength,  promoting cookie-cutter conformity while giving lip service to diversity.

If you’re a big fan of dystopian conspiracy classics like Soylent Green and John Carpenter’s They Live, as I am, I believe you’ll truly appreciate Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (I recommend skipping the subsequent retreads from the 1990s and 2000s, which have much less to offer, in my opinion.)

This is an entry in the Beyond Star Trek blogathon hosted by Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In and Hamlette of Hamlette’s Soliloquy. Thanks for inviting me to participate; I look forward to reading everyone’s posts!

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Moore and Moore Tears

’Tis the season to be bright and merry and joyful—or to fake it till you make it. That’s how many feel about the hustle and bustle and forced frivolity of this particular time of year. For the gimlet-eyed film lover who may be feeling just a wee bit of anti-holiday sentiment, I recommend the following antidote to those inane Lifetime holiday romances and even the stalwart classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Here's a holiday movie that was excoriated by critics and flopped at the box office, likely due to its relentlessly downbeat subject matter. Have you ever seen the one about the last wish of a dying girl with just a very short time to live (see movie title for exact prognosis)? This is Six Weeks (1982).

Surprisingly, it’s far from a total disaster. Directed with sensitivity by Tony Bill (My Bodyguard), the handsome actor who squired Goldie Hawn to that wild party in Shampoo and won an Oscar for coproducing The Sting, this film has grown on me over the years. Its heart is in the right place, and time has been kind to it.

True, Six Weeks is a curiosity in many ways. A film starring Moore and Moore—no relation, of course, but the pre-film publicity made much of it. Mary and Dudley. Two comic geniuses playing against type in a tragic melodrama—released on December 16, 1982, just in time for a good Christmas cry.

Mary Tyler Moore as Charlotte Dreyfus

Mary Tyler Moore is cosmetics tycoon and doting mother Charlotte Dreyfus, who is determined to give her ailing daughter a life of purpose and meaning, no matter what it costs. 

Channeling the brittle, edgy and high-strung vibe she had recently perfected in Ordinary People (earning her a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nod), Mary is a little bit scary here. The high humor of her salad days in the sitcom universe has all but evaporated, and we are left with a chic, glamorous but very serious and unhappy woman. But we understand why.

MTM’s onscreen persona changed dramatically as she matured—there are three distinct phases: Sweet and emotional Kennedy era wife Laura Petrie gave way to smilingly determined career girl Mary Richards, then moved on to tense and very complicated women such as Beth in Ordinary People and real-life criminal matriarch Sante Kimes in Like Mother, Like Son. But who was the real Mary? Probably all of the above, but we’ll never know.

British comedian and musician Dudley Moore was well known to UK TV audiences for his frequent partnership with satirist Peter Cook, but gained international fame flying solo in the U.S. comedy classics Foul Play and Blake Edwards’s 10. 

Dudley Moore as Patrick Dalton

Here, as Patrick Dalton, a naturalized U.S. citizen running for Congress, we see flashes of the Dudley Moore charm and humor that made him a box office favorite in all those zany 1980s comedies. But his exuberance too, of course, is sobered by the sadness of the film’s grave situation, as he befriends the adoring young girl who joins his campaign and then discovers her tragic secret.

Tyler Moore and Moore make an awkward Mutt and Jeff couple and were criticized as having zero chemistry. Indeed, tall Mary towers over diminutive Dudley and there is little va va voom in their coupling, but this is not meant to be a hot and heavy romance. It’s a love story of three soulmates who have a very short time together, a brief moment of joy before the tragedy that pulls them apart.

Katherine Healy, a real-life Olympic skating champion (who ironically pretends awkwardness on the ice in a scene at Rockefeller Center) and fledgling ballerina, plays the role of young Nicole Dreyfus. To date, this was her first and last film role, which is unfortunate, because she is effective here. 

Katherine Healy as Nicole Dreyfus

Though she, the film and her costars were savaged by the critics at the time, Healy is completely believable as the self-possessed and mature-beyond-her-years thirteen year old who has a lot of living to do before leukemia and the fates spirit her away. Today, Healy continues to teach dance, as she has done for many years.

Veteran supporting actress Shannon Wilcox has one of her best roles as Moore’s long suffering wife, who is obviously used to playing second fiddle to her politician husband’s demanding life and frequent business trip absences (and briefly mentioned previous extramarital affair). 

Granted, the film is somewhat maudlin and overly sentimental, but what tearjerker isn’t? It’s also filled with implausibilities that make it difficult to suspend disbelief—in what universe does even a poor little rich girl get the chance to dance in a New York City ballet and preside over the mock wedding of her mother to her new idol and hero?

"I now pronounce you man and wife. You may now kiss...the child."

Admittedly, MTM’s angry, sobbing meltdown as she reveals that her daughter is dying of leukemia, and the harrowing scene in the subway where the girl collapses (after her triumphant performance in The Nutcracker) do go over the top. (But why are those my favorite parts?)

The scene where mother and daughter dance together is lovely and memorable.Though no prima ballerina herself, Mary performs with grace and skill, using the dance as the opportunity to shower unrepressed affection upon her daughter during this shared moment of joy. MTM fans will recall that she started her showbiz career as Happy Hotpoint, the dancing elf of appliance commercials, as well as her musical moments with TV hubby DIck Van Dyke and tap dancing in the elevator with Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Healy and Moore

Coincidentally, some of the tragic elements of the story—debilitating illnesses and the loss of a child—resonate with the personal lives of the principals. Mary had just recently suffered the loss of her only son, Richie, in a 1980 handgun accident. She was a lifelong insulin-dependent diabetic who also braved a decades-long bout with alcoholism. But she endured and continued to work on and off until her death at the age of 80 in 2017.

More than a decade after Dudley Moore made Six Weeks, he would be plagued by a series of serious health issues, including heart disease and Parkinson’s, sidelining him from show business until director Barbra Streisand took a chance and offered him a small supporting role in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Sadly, Streisand reluctantly fired him when it became clear he was not up to the task, and he was replaced by Austin Pendleton. He died in 2002. 

Two great stars—who could ask for anything Moore?

The earnest performances make this movie watchable, and are accompanied by a moving original piano score (composed by Dudley Moore himself) designed for eliciting tears. So if you are in the mood for good cry (and a few rolls of the eye)—as many of us are during the holidays!—you may actually enjoy Six Weeks as much as I do.