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Midnight Movie Monographs: Tommy (Book review)

The name Kit Power is undoubtedly familiar to many horror fans. The author of the novel GodBomb, Power’s work has also been published in magazines such as Splatterpunk and Kzine and his short stories can be found in a number of anthologies including Matt Shaw Presents Masters of Horror, Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers: A Horror Anthology and Great British Horror 3: For Those in Peril (just to name a few). Most recently Power has directed his curious mind towards one of the greatest (if not the greatest) rock operas ever written; Tommy (1975). Published by PS Publishing imprint Electric Dreamhouse, Tommy is part of their ever-growing Midnight Movie Monographs series and makes a lovely addition to an already stellar collection. At only 133 pages, it might not seem long enough to fully cover the splendour of this epic piece of cinema, but rest assured, Mr. Power has done a superb job in bringing the story of Tommy alive in all its colourful, mind blowing glory. 

The book starts with an introductory chapter detailing the author’s first encounter with the film. It sets the mood by painting a picture of 1980s Britain, approaching bedtime and channel hopping with what was then only four measly channels. Unsurprisingly, out of the meagre televisual entertainment on offer, Tommy was the winning choice for that evening’s viewing; much to young Mr. Power’s horror. Not that he would know that at first but the further into Tommy’s traumatic childhood/young adulthood the film got, the more he found himself wanting to escape this hellish tale, eventually getting his mother to change the channel, first during Tommy’s unfortunate meeting with cousin Kevin before completely turning the film off when uncle Ernie makes his appearance. While this little intro did put a slight smile on my face, I can’t really blame Power for reacting the way he did. He was, after all, only seven at the time and even though I was significantly older when I first saw this cinematic masterpiece, I can still relate to that feeling of dread that a small child might have felt when following Tommy’s ordeal. Even as an adult it makes for uncomfortable viewing and I’m guessing had I seen it at the tender age of seven, it would have ever so slightly traumatized me. Be that as it may, Power’s anecdote is a great start for the book. It gives a lovely, intimate glimpse at his own personal relationship with the film and works as a great jumping off point for further analysis and abundance of neat little facts.

The next few chapters focus on the two main men behind Tommy, Ken Russell and Pete Townsend, first going into detail about the circumstances of birth for both men: Russell born in the 1920’s; a child of war and Townsend, born just after VE day; a child of rubble. This might sound like somewhat far fetched thing to even mention, but in the context of the film it of course makes perfect sense. The war iconography is heavily present all throughout Tommy, so to start from covering some of that imagery and its symbolism as well as the films creating forces’ link to that imagery is certainly significant. The next few chapters detail how Russell — a great lover of classical music — got attached to a rock opera, how Townsend, bored with performing Tommy, agreed to retell the same story in a new format and how these two magnificent examples of human creativity came together. There’s also some detail about how some of the other star power got linked with the film, including (much to my delight) a whole chapter on Oliver Reed’s journey to becoming uncle Frank. 

From here on the book covers the film chronologically from scene to scene. There is obviously a lot of details about the film itself as Power scrupulously goes over every moment, pointing out things that even more perceptive viewers might have missed. His detailed descriptions of the story bring it alive in a very vivid manner and even if you never seen or even heard about Tommy, after reading Power’s narration of it, you will have a very good idea at what to expect. Or if you are indeed already familiar with the film, you will undoubtedly find yourself wanting to revisit it with a fresh pair of eyes and a head full of newly found knowledge. As this is not a book about just any film but a book about a rock opera, there is, as expected, also plenty of music talk. It’s obvious that besides film, Power also knows his way around music and his coverage of the movie’s soundtrack, as well as the original album and live show, are not only spot on but buoyantly enjoyable read. Even someone such as myself, who knows very little about music in technical terms, can appreciate his passion for the subject and given the level of detail Power goes into, I do feel I even learned a thing or two. 

Amongst the analysis and passionate description of the film, there are some fun little facts and anecdotes as well as information about the original material (the album and the live show), how it all compares to Russell’s vision and the changes that were made to the soundtrack (song, scene and song order wise). As a Who fan I found all of this quite interesting and I’m sure even if you are more than just a fan of Tommy the movie, these little snippets of background info will still be a welcome addition to the overall coverage of the film. There are also a few short but well-deserved chapters dedicated to the fantastic performances that Roger Daltrey, Ann Margaret and Jack Nicholson respectively give. Even though Nicholson’s appearance in the film only last for a few minutes, I fully agree with Power’s decision to dedicate a few pages purely on him. He is magic. In the middle of it all there is also another personal reminiscence of Power’s own relationship with pinball machines and a story of one magical afternoon when he played the Tommy pinball like a true wizard. It’s slightly separate from rest of the subject matter, but still a fun add to the book and like Power’s opening chapter, helps establish his connection to the film in a very relatable manner. 

I full-heartedly recommend this book to any Tommy fans out there. In fact, I would recommend it even if you have never seen the film. Even though it’s absolutely packed with fascinating movie and music information, it also has a wonderful gaiety to it and would make a great poolside or travel read, as well as something to keep you entertained on dark winter nights. It is a little powerhouse of knowledge and eloquent analysis that never errs on the side of dry or boring. 

Midnight Movie Monographs: Tommy is available now from PS Publishing. 

About Niina Doherty

Niina is a life long genre fan and enthusiastic amateur writer. Originally from Finland, but currently based in the UK, she mostly spends her time writing, painting, watching films and in general tomfoolery with her little boy. Besides Diabolique, Niina also writes for Horrornews.net as part of their Asian horror review team.

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