Celebrity has long been a cultural fixation. As individuals who live in a consumer-based economy, the lives of those who command fame, fortune, and respect command awe and wonder, and set unrealistic expectations for others to adhere to. While it’s easy to maintain a level of objectivity and see this fascination as vapid and superficial, it’s almost impossible to keep our eyes from this world that we have little chance of experiencing. Ironically, it’s those who possess fame that have become its harshest critics. Two bands who critiqued the shallowness of this world did so through landmark albums that have yet to be equaled in both scale and artistic depth. Pink Floyd and The Who offered very different viewpoints, and when both were adapted to film, left an indelible impact on anyone who watched.
At the core of both projects are two composers whose impact on both music and popular culture still resonate today. Roger Waters, the mastermind behind Pink Floyd pushed the boundaries of what music could do. Pink Floyd brought its listeners on an introspective and often supersonic journey to landscapes undiscovered. Albums such as Dark Side of the Moon and Animals both had moments that could be defined as spiritual and allowed listeners to view the world as it was—cold, unforgiving, and bitter. The Wall, an odyssey into the life of Waters through the albums focal point, Pink, showed the trauma of human experience and how art manifested itself from the negative. The events of one’s life becoming a literal wall that others couldn’t see past. Much like celebrity, the outside world sees a projected image that obscures trauma and the weakness of those perceived as icons.
As one of the most prolific songwriters of all time, Pete Townsend seemed to embody the frustration of the misguided post-war generation of London. The Beatles were crafting iconic pop-rock hits that would define a generation, The Who were proclaiming “I hope I die before I get old.” This discontent with both life and authority permeates through Tommy, which elevates the worship of celebrity to one of a personality cult that rejects the thought process of the time period. While the 1960s are synonymous with the term “tune in, turn on, drop out”, Townsend rejected the popularity of drug use within the counter culture. On the surface, Tommy appears more like a comedic force that almost seems nonsensical. The protagonist and title character is described as “blind, deaf, and dumb”, yet becomes a messiah to millions through his pinball abilities. While this certainly illustrates the herd like tendencies of those who blindly follow celebrity, it speaks much deeper to the rejection of substance abuse and finding enlightenment through ways that don’t invite self-destruction. A lyric from the song “I’m Free” lays it all on the line. “If I told you what it takes to reach the highest high, you’d laugh and say ‘nothing’s that simple.’ But you’ve been told many times before, messiahs pointed to the door, no one had the guts to leave the temple.”
While both bands and composers certainly share similarities, it’s the men who adapted both stories to film that have their own legacy with the world of celluloid. Helming the rock opera Tommy was none other than Ken Russell. If films like The Devils (1971)and Altered States (1980) are any indication of Russell’s capabilities as a storyteller, than it seems almost too perfect that he would be tasked with bringing such a colorful story to the screen. The Wall on the other hand, which could easily be described as the anti-rock opera was helmed by Alan Parker. It’s almost artistic irony, that two years prior, Parker had directed a film which told of a very different take on celebrity culture and the quest to achieve it with Fame would helm such a brooding an introspective film. In later works such as Angel Heart (1987) and Mississippi Burning (1988), the director would prove that the darkness was an integral part of his artistry, be it real life tragedy or the metaphysical.
It’s almost too perfect that Tommy, a film which explores the folly of celebrity worship, is led by a celebrity cast. As he had done on the album of the same name, Tommy is portrayed by Who vocalist Roger Daltrey. His parents, just as integral to his meteoric rise to stardom and subsequent exploitation are none other than Oliver Reed and Anne Margaret. Other appearances of note include Elton John, Tina Turner, Jack Nicholson, and in a sequence that almost too perfectly encapsulates the worship of celebrity and popular culture, Eric Clapton and Arthur Brown.
As previously stated, Tommy is a rejection of the drug culture in favor of personal enlightenment. If Tommy didn’t firmly establish Townsend’s discontent for the counterculture, then certainly him smashing Abbie Hoffman in the back of the head at Woodstock made it perfectly clear. As Tommy’s parents attempt to alleviate his being blind, deaf, and dumb, the attempts of achieving enlightenment are all false, insincere, and all have about the same effectiveness as snake oil. Tina Turner’s rendition of “Acid Queen” illustrates the futility of drug abuse. Not just within the song itself, but in Turner utilizing her sex appeal to illustrate drugs as a sort of ‘siren’s call.’ The sequence also touches upon one of the after effects of the production. Sharing time on screen together more than once, drummer Keith Moon and actor Oliver Reed struck up an unlikely friendship due to their love of alcohol. Reed would later speak of these drinking sessions when he stated “I led Keith Moon to the bar, but he led me to utter insanity.”
It’s throughout these vapid snake oil attempts that we see the cult of popular culture and celebrity elevated to the form of religion. Townsend, a follower of eastern philosophy, simultaneously attacks organized religion, celebrity, and drug culture during the performance of “The Hawker” by Eric Clapton. Clapton, who was once even hailed as god by his legions of devotees, plays a guitar playing priest, presiding over a church which has canonized Marilyn Monroe as their patron saint, right down to towering statue. “She’s got the power to heal you, never fear. Just one word from her lips and the deaf can hear.” This lyric echoes the empty promises and supposed hope that religion brings. The service even holds a parody of holy communion, as followers take a host of pills and whiskey in place of wafers and wine. As a camera with a star of David shaped flash operates in the background, shock rock pioneer Arthur Brown blesses the congregation in a display of erratic behavior which mirrored his live performances. While Clapton’s followers proclaimed him as god, Arthur Brown sang about the purging of possessions to escape the confines of materialism in his song, “Hellfire.”
The entire spectacle encapsulates the trappings of celebrity worship. Right down to how the bad lifestyle of drug abuse becomes popularized in its idolatry. What makes Tommy such an outstanding story that’s told through both the film and the album, is it shines a light on celebrity becoming its own power, one that corrupts those who wield it. This is present in the concluding song of the album, “We’re Not Going to Take it.” As Tommy becomes the modern messiah, he falls prey to the control of his handlers and himself attempts to force his own path of enlightenment upon others. In a scene which features Tommy forcing others to obscure their senses and play pinball as he did, the point of view in Townsend’s lyrics is unmistakable. “Hey you getting drunk, I’ve got you sussed. Hey you smoking mother nature, this is a bust. Hey hung up old Mr. Normal, don’t try to gain my trust. Because you can’t follow me any of those way although you think you must.”
This ultimately leads to Tommy’s followers forsaking him, which mirrors a message of rejection. Not just the rejection of the personality cult of celebrity, but the aspect of having to follow the herd in hopes of gaining personal fulfillment. Tommy finds his own path, just as everyone must find their own. Tommy is about individualism and finding one’s own truth, and not following blindly into the trapping of a messianic culture.
While Tommy illustrates the messianic tones of celebrity, The Wall conveys to its audience the building blocks that make up the human experience, and that art emerges from the hardships of life. Much like Tommy, The Wall is told through song, but it divorces itself from the rock opera by utilizing macabre and morbid imagery to delve into the human psyche. From the earliest moments of both the album and the film, it’s firmly established that the literal wall closes us off from the outside world, allowing them to only see what’s on the surface. The song “In the Flesh” establishes this perspective of celebrity. “Is something eluding you, sunshine? Is this not what you expected to see? If you want to find out what’s behind these cold eyes, you’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise.”
Another similarity to Tommy is the story chooses the primary character (Pink, played by Bob Geldof) and his past and present as the primary focal point. However, The Wall isn’t so much about the personification of celebrity, but the development of an artist through past trauma and the self-imposed isolation of the present. The events of his life are described as “another brick in the wall” Pink, the main character allows Roger Waters to illustrate some of the events that made up his life and influenced his creativity. From the passing of his father in the second world war to his struggles in school, Pink’s life is one where the ghosts of his past perpetually haunt him.
The Wall could easily be describing as a piece of neo-surrealism. While the struggles of school are apparent, they’re conveyed to the audience through imagery of children being placed into a meat grinder and being driven to school on crowded cattle cars. This illustration of being manufactured and being forced to conform to expectations itself makes escape a necessity. Surrealism plays a major part during several scenes where reality and animation are shown in contrast with one another. Most notably, a sequence for the song “Goodbye, Blue Sky”, which conveys the horror of surviving the blitz. The Luftwaffe is depicted as a black eagle emitting cross shaped planes from its center. For a child surviving an air raid, this illustration projects the nightmares that could easily be seen as part of the developing mind. It’s also not the last time that fascist imagery will be used to drive home an important aspect of the film.
The Wall spends a great deal of time delving into Pink’s psyche and his past. This allows us to see the events that shape his “wall” and can assume that the lingering trauma closes him off from others seeing the real him, as they only see the rock star and artist. It’s this outside perception of who pink is, the celebrity status which is shown to the audience through a fascist rally. Pink is no longer the torture rockstar walled up in a hotel, nor is he the troubled youth lamenting the defining moments of his past. Pink becomes transformed into a fascist leader, complete with a legion of followers clad in black with armbands that further illustrates the fascist imagery.
The staging of a fascist rally speaks less about any political subtext within the film, and more about the blind devotion and fanatical behavior that some have towards celebrity. The lyric of “I’ve got some news for you, sunshine. Pink isn’t well, he’s back at the hotel, and they sent us along as a surrogate band” delves into the separation between artist and the perceived image that devotees cling to. We ask ourselves why people would be so willing to follow dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler, yet others cling to every bit of celebrity news as if they’re receiving a prophecy from the mountaintop. This descends into an orgy of violence from Pink’s followers as “Run Like Hell” plays in the background. Much like the gang of toughs carrying out violence in the name of their fascist leader, this illustrates the behavior that the personality cult of celebrity can induce. It’s a matter of blindly following without question.
This is expanded upon further in “Waiting for the Worms” in which indoctrination into the personality cult is shown to eradicate any sense of individualism. “You cannot reach me now, no matter how you try. Goodbye cruel world, it’s over. Walk on by.” The utilization of fascism to demonstrate celebrity and personality cult could be dismissed by the intellectually hollow as nothing more than shock value. As recent world events have shown us, the link between the two is stronger than we might have originally thought. Considering what the 1980s brought in terms of oppression and celebrity excess, The Wall remains a prophetic work. Much like Pink Floyd’s recorded material, we’re allowed for some moments of deep introspection to evaluate the events that have made us who we are. By taking a closer look at ourselves, we can determine what our “bricks in the wall” are.
Both Tommy and Pink Floyd: The Wall do have their differences from one another. Both as albums and as film adaptations. However, they both allow us to view the farcical blind obedience that comes from both celebrity and popular culture. While we see the satirical depictions of the world we exist in, both artistic properties allow us to look at our own beliefs and past experiences. That’s the effectiveness and importance of art. We may also apply Nietzsche’s philosophy to both, “If you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss will eventually stare into you.” And many times, it has.