The Pinball Wizard of, uh, Portsmouth!
Today I’m here to talk about Elton John singing “Pinball Wizard” in Ken Russell’s 1975 film adaptation of Tommy. This bit must have taken some extra special directing, because… *gesticulates to everything*
Side note right off: the more I have learned about Russell and his influences, the more I feel the need to see every single film this person ever made. Tommy sounds like the LEAST unhinged of the bunch. But then, what else could I expect of a decadent Catholic?
This scene was a low-key life-changing experience for me as a teen. I first saw it on one of those fake-MTV channels that seemed to have free rein at night on the East Coast, and it was the most scene I think I’d ever witnessed. So much happening at once! I was kind of scared, kind of confused, kind of turned on. In fact, the movie in full was one of the works that taught me how fear, confusion, and arousal could coexist.
(Contextual anecdote: while I’m riveted to this overwhelming sequence on TV, the only other person present is my mom, who is dozing on the sofa. At one point she stirs, lifts her head, and asks sleepily, “Why does Roger Daltrey have that funny look on his face?” Careful to keep my eyes forward so as not to betray any funny look I may have on my face, I answer, “Because he’s Tommy.” She says, “Oh, okay.” And promptly goes back to sleep.)
Today the scene gives me great joy. All the facial expressions, the fact that they got a whole crowd together (in Portsmouth) and basically threw a concert centered around a couple of pinball machines, and, of course, Elton John’s incredible, over-the-top costume. Even the premise of him singing the song is funny to me. As I’ve tangentially discussed before, he set himself apart from many of his singer-songwriter contemporaries in that he was recording very few covers: his albums comprised mostly, or entirely, his and Bernie Taupin’s compositions. If, then, you asked me which songwriter’s work he would choose to cover if he were to, I would probably say McCartney. Or maybe (you guessed it) Brian Wilson. Pete Townshend is nowhere near the top of the list. So this Crossover Episode of Music is an unexpected and wonderful thing. Also, he really just goes for it on the vocal, part of which is slightly out of his range (and the key has been transposed, mind you, higher than the original). 10/10.
And everybody else is partying, and Keith’s splashing water over his kit, and it’s just a grand old time. The only thing I don’t buy—I mean, assuming all disbelief is thoroughly suspended for the duration—is the sound versus the visual. Elton John and his band had been churning out the hits and the records and performing constantly, so they were extremely tight. In fact, Pete has said this was the easiest number on the soundtrack to produce because they just went into the studio and nailed in it a couple of takes. But we’re seeing Pete and John and Keith mime to a track that, sonically, is nothing like them. It’s just a little disorienting. I think I can get over it.
Even so, especially with the breakdown in the middle and the extended outro, the band manages to make it sound like an outtake from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Again, 10/10. (Love that they had to hide their obvious desire to play “I Can’t Explain” inside a whole other song.)
So there you have it. I still want a pinball machine connected to a keyboard. And if I’m not wearing giant platform shoes, then I’m not playing.
Image: what even is this face I can’t (Dailymotion)