Basking in the roar of a standing ovation for a screening of director Ken Russell’s film of the Who’s rock opera Tommy, documentarian Murray Lerner (Listening to You: The Who at the Isle of Wight, From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China) took the stage at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Samuel Goldywn Theater Friday, May 21 to introduce the evening’s special guest. The film had been digitally restored and was shown for the first time since its release in 1975 in the original Quintophonic sound mix. The original tag line for the film, ‘Your senses will never be the same,” came awfully close to being fulfilled by this superb restoration—at top volume in the beautiful AMPAS auditorium the movie was thrilling and overwhelming, the sound mix perfect once again, and it seemed as new as it must have on opening day back in March of 1975. Lerner’s senses surely would be altered by evening’s end too, and not just because of the film. Russell had come from London just for this event, and when Lerner brought him to the stage the documentarian was prepared, at least mentally, to talk seriously about the making of the Tommy film. (His comments before the screening regarding the history of the rock opera, which included screened interview footage of Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey shot by Lerner as they talked about the music and the movie, clued the audience in as to his straightforward, dry, but informative style, which was miles apart from that of the flamboyant Russell.)
But within two minutes of commencement of the 20-minute talk Russell, who looked a frail 83 and approached the front of the room slowly, with much assistance from AMPAS staffers and a walker cane, had hijacked the interview with his patented brand of impish contempt for the process of analyzing his own films. Whatever Lerner expected from his subject, it certainly was not a insistent mock (?) dotty denial of knowledge of almost every aspect of the film’s creation, with lapses into other voices and bemused asides to the audience for good measure. It took Lerner a while to understand exactly what he’d gotten himself into, and once he did he could never bring himself to play ball on the field that Russell had set. (At one point he admitted that “I guess I’m at a loss.”) Meanwhile, Russell the droll elf was have a cackling good time.
Fortunately, for those familiar with Russell’s cultivated iconoclasm, both in his work as a director and in his public persona, the evening’s shenanigans came less as a shock than an expectedly entertaining and off-the-wall bit of hi-jinks. The director had flown all the way from Great Britain to take part in the 35th anniversary celebration of his most popular movie, so one would think that he would make no mistake in framing the evening exactly as he cared to. Given that, Russell was the furthest thing from sentimental. It was somewhat refreshing to see him take his disdain for public opinion of his work with a shrug while he simultaneously dismantled all other attempts to address it seriously himself, even within this potentially fawning context. (The anarchy of the proceedings put me in mind of a TV interview featured the Who documentary The Kids Are Alright in which, after a raucous performance on a British variety show, the host sits amongst the band, who proceed to batter him with in-jokes and bits of tomfoolery, eventually tearing his and their own clothes off on camera.) The only ones disappointed were, I would think, those who came to the screening in the hopes of learning anything about Russell’s thoughts on the film and how it was made. (Had editor Stuart Baird been present, as had been advertised, the conversation might have momentarily taken a few different turns, but Baird was a no-show.) The rest of the audience simply enjoyed being in the presence of the notoriously ridiculous director and the occasional frisson of disbelief over the weird sort of performance art piece they witnessed, in which the very process of the celebrity interview was systematically folded, spindled, mutilated and eventually reduced to ashes.
The interview in its entirety was available to listen to on SLIFR: The Noisy Version, but unfortunately a request which came to me this morning (6/3/2010) from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to take the recording down has been complied with. However, I have transcribed it below. You'll miss Russell's odd timing and vocal inflections, but the gist of the interchange definitely comes through. I also thought it important to transcribe the piece for the sake of clarity— at only one point did my memory and the sound fidelity of my voice recorder betray my ability to accurately relate what was said. But I have also transcribed it for those who couldn’t quite believe what they heard, and now, as it turns out, it's a good thing that I did. So here it is, then-- Ken Russell and Murray Lerner on Tommy in general and very little in particular. Enjoy!
( Applause )
MURRAY LERNER: Well, Ken, I think we oughta talk about-- It's difficult to know where to start. Have you seen the film in this beautiful image before?
KEN RUSSELL: Uh, no, not with this soundtrack, no. It’s quite something.
ML: It is something, and it brings to mind, especially the ending—Pete felt that in his music the audience was part of the music and it was like them joining in and—It’s interesting to me that the effect over the titles, because of what happened just before the titles, was very much like an anthem, which they thought their ending music was for the—
ML: Did you feel that?
KR: Yeah, yeah, yeah… (To audience) I think.
ML: And it’s very difficult to get that effect in film, to make the audience part of the film, in a way. How do you feel about the relationship between film and the audience in a thing like this?
KR: Well, I think this is very much, you know, an entity, you know. It’s the audience sort of helps make it. You know, they go along with it. And, um, so I think it’s—That’s—That’s why it works as well as it does.
ML: I thought the height of that was in the Marilyn Monroe religious scene, where the music just carried you totally along.
ML: The imagery was so powerful that you couldn’t help but—We were participating.
KR: Yeah. Yeah.
ML: Did you—
KR: Yeah, I mean, um… (To audience) I think!
KR: Yes. Yes, yes.
ML: Well, how long is it since you’ve seen the film?
KR: (Pause) Last week.
ML: Well, I can’t ask you what your— What are your feelings about it now compared to—
KR: It was last week, yeah.
ML (chuckling): What are your feelings about it now compared to what they were in '76 or '75?
KR: Well, um, about the same.
KR: No, uh, the sound on this particular print was, you know, really wonderful, and it, uh—The Quintophonic sound, you know, um, and all it stands for, you know, is just an integral part of the film that, uh, carried it along.
ML: It absolutely does. And it’s interesting to me that Pete especially tried to develop quadraphonic sound, and it was a total disaster.
ML: And this is much better because it’s spread out in a different way.
KR: Yes. Uh-huh.
ML: But they actually built a quadrophonic sound studio which went belly up. It didn’t work.
KR: Yeah. (Affects precious voice) Well, I think it was very good indeed.
ML Just jumping to another level of questions, who was the boy? (Barry Winch) What happened to him?
KR: The boy?
ML: The, uh—Tommy. The boy Tommy. The young Tommy.
KR: He died.
(Russell looks at audience.)
KR: I think.
KR: No, no, no, it was all a bit of good fun. But, uh—(Indistinct )
KR: Who, the boy? (Pause) I don’t know. I never asked.
KR: I don’t think he did.
ML: He did some very—some very demanding scenes. Did you find it difficult to deal with him or—
KR: Um, no. I— Very easy. I… just said (shouts) “ACTION!”
KR: And “CUT!” (Normal speaking voice) That’s all you need to know.
ML: Did Pete—I read in another interview that you and he— you especially worked very hard and only had about three hours sleep a night, figuring out when to yell "Action!" and "Cut!" I suppose. Did you storyboard the film at all, or did you--
KR: What’s storyboards?
ML: Did you, uh—
KR: (Quizzically) Storyboard.
ML: In planning, I can see that—
(Lerner stops and reacts to Russell’s confused stare)
KR: (Mock distress) What’s storyboard?
(Long pause, laughter)
ML Really? All right. I admire the movie—very nicely put together. Beautifully put together. So I can see it was a lot of work. This film—
KR: It was very easy. “Action! Cut!” That’s all I had to say! What more do you need to know?
ML (now clearly perplexed): Um… uh—
ML: Um, I suppose the budget.
KR: Budget? What budget? What’s a budget?
(Woman in front row laughing hysterically)
WOMAN: Oh, God! I love you!
KR: You love me.
ML Did you have any fights with the—
KR: Shh! (To Woman) You have my heart. Do you want a heart? (To audience) Give her a heart.
KR: The “Christmas” scene was nice, wasn’t it?
KR: Yeah. That was Oliver Reed… and a bottle of beer.
ML: Did you, uh—What were your thoughts when you were first offered the film? Did you decide to make it this different a film?
KR: No. No.
ML: It’s very different. I think Peter’s right. It’s very different from the original, except for the intent, the through line. But I think it’s beautifully done and a real opera.
ML: That was—That was the—
KR: Yeah, well, that why I liked it, ‘cause it was an opera.
KR: Always wanted to do an opera. Yeah, I did. Sort of.
ML: And how did it develop as you went along? Did you have fights with the studio about this, about—
KR: Fights with the studio?
ML: Yeah. I mean it’s very, very unusual in its imagery. I wonder about the Marilyn Monroe scene. Did you have any discussions about that, or did--
KR: No. I don’t discuss my films. I just make them.
ML: Did you have any discussions or—
KR: No. No.
ML I was talking about Pete.
KR: No! I hadn’t a thought to. Nice, Peter. Pete.
KR: Roger was nice too.
ML: Roger’s very nice. I think he was one of the best acting jobs in the film.
KR: Who was acting?
ML: Uh, Roger, in the sensations in his, uh, face when he was deaf, dumb and blind.
KR: Roger’s dumb and blind? Who was dumb and blind?
ML: Roger, at the beginning of his appearance.
ML: I thought that was very unusual.
ML: You’re not gonna answer any questions, are you?
KR: I didn’t know that was a question.
ML: It wasn’t a question.
KR: I didn’t think it was. That’s why I didn’t answer it.
(Laughing Continues, Pause)
ML: Uh, okay.
(Pause, Laughter Continues)
KR (To audience): Get me out of here!
ML: You’ve made a lot of films about music.
KR: I have?!
ML: What is music?
KR: Music. (Begins whistling a tune.) That’s music.
KR: (Humming) That’s music.
ML: All right… Do you feel that music can really be understood?
KR: Hmm. What’s understood?
ML: I don’t know what it means. That’s why I asked you the question. I don't know what it means.
ML: I’ve made a lot of documentaries in music, but I think looking at this and your work that a documentary can never be as powerful about music as a creative fictional film. I don’t think it can capture—Even though it’s not--
KR: Capture that first… free, careless rapture?
(Pause, smattering of applause, as if the audience wasn’t quite prepared of KR taking a question even slightly seriously.)
ML: But even seeing the Who…
KR: The Who.
ML: …perform Tommy…
ML: I’m not sure has the power of this film anymore. But I think it’s more powerful because it is a fictional opera.
KR: You mean it didn’t happen?
KR: I’ve made a terrible mistake! I thought it was all true.
ML: You probably did.
(Laughter, applause. ML scores his first point.)
KR: You mean it wasn’t true?
(KR turns to audience, shocked look on his face. Laughter continues.)
ML: There was no father. There was no son. There was no Tommy.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: It was all true. He’s only kidding.
KR: Oh, thank heavens for that.
ML: There was a Marilyn Monroe.
KR: There was?
ML: There was a Marilyn Monroe.
KR: What happened to her?
ML: She died.
KR: She didn’t! Did she?
ML: She was recreated in your film.
KR: Ah, yes, yes. Yes.
ML: Um—(Chuckles )
KR: Yes, she was. Yes.
ML: All right, it’s not a question because you’re not gonna answer it, but, boy, the use of Oliver Reed was really very-- I must say, even thought it was criticized quite a bit in reviews, I thought he was wonderful.
ML: And also I think he (Pete Townshend) made the right decision in murdering the father and having him carry the murder throughout the whole story. That was really brilliant. And then the father…existed who—killing him and--
KR : Kill what?
ML: He killed the father.
KR: He killed the father?
ML: Of Tommy.
KR: (Mock confused) Of Tommy. Sorry.
ML: And I thought that was a great change from the original script.
ML: And did you—Was that a—a big decision, or just—
KR: No. No.
ML: You just—You saw Oliver Reed and you said "Action!”?
KR: (Mock exasperation) Yes!
ML: You didn’t say “Cut!” very much—
KR: No, you don’t to Oliver. You don’t say “Cut!” You say, “Please shall we stop filming now? Please, Oliver? Have you anything further to say, Oliver?”
KR: “Piss off, Ken! Piss off!”
KR: No, he doesn’t say much, Oliver. No, he doesn’t say much. I always said I had three words for Oliver: “Cut!”
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: That’s one word.
KR: That was one word, yeah.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Three letters.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE Moody!
KR: Yes, you don’t say much to Oliver. ‘Cause he’ll say, "Piss off, Ken!" Yeah, that's what he called me. "Ken."
ML: How about to Roger? Did you say anything—
KR: (mishearing): Sir Roger? Who was Sir Roger?
ML: Roger Daltrey.
KR: Oh, Roger Daltrey.
ML: Did you say much to him?
KR: No. Just action and cut.
ML: You rolled your eyes around a little bit, hmm?
KR: Yeah. I can’t roll ‘em much more.
ML: He told me that he actually—He did the hang-gliding. He learned how to—
KR: Did what?
ML: The hang-glider scene. He said that he learned how to fly a hang-glider.
KR: He did?
ML: That’s what he told me.
KR: I didn’t know that. He was pretty good, wasn’t he?
ML: He was pretty good.
KR: Yeah. (Pause) Yeah.
ML: Did you say anything to Ann-Margret?
KR: You don’t say much to Ann-Margret.
KR: Now, Tina Turner—
KR: Yes. (Stares ahead blankly) You don’t say very much to her.
ML: Who did you talk to?
KR: I didn’t talk to anyone. Just said “Action!” and “Cut!” That’s all you need to know.
ML: Did you talk to the cameraman at all?
KR (sharply): No. (Pause) I didn’t talk to him. He was beneath contempt.
ML: Did you talk to Pete Townshend at all?
KR: Excuse me?
ML: Pete Townshend? Did you talk to him at all?
KR: Pete who?
KR: Townshend. Didn’t know him.
ML: He claims he knew you.
KR (mulling name over): Pete Townshend. (Pause) No, I don’t know him.
KR: No, I didn’t speak to him. He wrote the music, didn’t he?
ML: He tried to, yes.
KR: He tried to, yes.
ML: But you put a stop to that.
KR: I did.
ML (laughing): You kept quashing his attempt to do it. He tried to write some lyrics also.
KR: Oh, he did?
KR: Mmm. What do you know? Strange.
ML: Um… I’m—I’m at a loss, I guess. Uh, anyway—
ML: I did like the film, and I still—
KR: You did?
ML: Yes. I think it’s a great work of art.
ML: Which I didn’t think so when I first saw it.
KR (mock indignant): You didn’t?! (Muttering)
ML (suddenly holding his mic at hip level): I’m interested also in— There are people who thought it was a work of art and people who say--
(Audience shouting at ML to hold his microphone to his mouth)
KR (shouting): I’m not speaking! That’s why you can’t hear me!
ML: You’ve had a lot of flattery and criticism in the reviews about this film.
KR: I have?!
KR: Who from?!
ML: Oh, anonymous reviewers. They’re afraid of you.
KR: Afraid of me?
KR (affecting mild old man’s voice): Why are they afraid of me?
ML: How do you feel about reviews—
KR: They’re afraid of me.
ML (laughing): How do you—How do you f—
KR (to ML): Are you afraid of me?
ML: I’m afraid of you.
ML: That’s why I’m sitting at this distance.
KR: Yes. You are afraid, aren’t you?
ML: You’ve got a cane. You could hit me with that cane.
KR: Yeah! (Begins to make a move toward ML brandishing cane.)
ML: That’s right.
(KR’s mic falls to the floor. Audience reacts with amusement and mounting dread at the sight of both KR and ML hunched over, attempting to grab mic off floor. A savvy AMPAS staffer comes to the rescue.)
ML: Anyway, you had very controv—
ML: You’ve had very controversial reactions to Tommy, some very, very bitter--
KR: Who from?
KR (laughs): Revie-- Reviewers?! (Affecting upper crust accent) I don’t have anything to do with reviews.
(ML laughs, smattering of applause)
(At this point, another AMPAS staffer approaches the front of the stage and squats, in clear sight of KR and ML, and begins motioning for them to wrap things up. KR stares at the staffer and mocks the twirling finger signal the man is apparently sending to the stage.)
KR: There’s a man in the front row doing some rather obscene things.
KR: I assume they are. I’m not going to repeat them.
(Laughter continues. The staffer retreats.)
KR: He’s gone away.
(Laughter continues. KR notices the woman from earlier who is still laughing hysterically.)
KR (mutters): That woman there— (Mutters) I think it’s time we went.
ML: I agree with you.
(KR and ML stand to applause. Ken Russell takes about 10 minutes to exit the stage and out of the auditorium, accepting well wishes and compliments on his films all the way. The dazed audience takes just about as long to file out.)