On Friday, March 13, the Sie FilmCenter will present a special fortieth anniversary screening of Ken Russell’s 1975 phantasmagorical musical Tommy. Based on the “rock opera” by The Who, the film was a mind scramble of an adaptation of the band’s own wild concert tour for the piece, which told the story of a deaf, mute and blind kid who becomes a pinball wizard and then eventually a cult figure, meeting a variety of wild characters in the process. The whole thing seemed to have been dreamed up by the bandmembers in their own haze of special enhancement.
When the time came to bring Tommy to the big screen, Russell spared no expense in making sure that the film’s tagline, “Your senses will never be the same again,” was for real. With massive, candy-coated sets, grand locations and an all-star cast including Roger Daltrey as Tommy as well as Elton John, Ann-Margret, Jack Nicholson and Tina Turner as the hallucinogen-inducing Acid Queen, the film almost floats away on an over-the-top orgasmic high and leaves the audience with its own cinematic trails to follow to the heavens.
Yet Tommy is certainly not the first or last film to experiment with drugs and create a cinematic landscape that sometimes came with its own set of side effects. Here are five more films it would be rude to “Just Say No” to...
5) Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Hunter S. Thompson’s fabled 1971 novel about thinly veiled versions of the author and his pal Oscar Acosta screeching across Nevada on an adventure fueled by mescaline and cocaine was long deemed “unfilmable” by purists — but leave it to the great Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys, Brazil), tasked with only ten days to rewrite the script from scratch, who fills every frame of gonzo stars Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro nearly melting in a sweaty, nervous burst of truly dazed confusion.
Directed by Danny Boyle
Also based on a novel, this time by Irvine Welsh, Danny Boyle’s early work starts off with a bang, and uses Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” as a fist-banging soundtrack for this darkly comic portrait of a group of Edinburgh heroin addicts, led by Ewan McGregor, who get caught in a hazy set of mishaps leading to an Ocean’s 11 style drug deal made worse by the crew’s constant state of being high on smack. The film isn’t always climbing the walls but when it is, it shies from presenting heroin as a sexy drug as blood, feces, ceiling-crawling babies and one incredibly disgusting toilet are the most sparking set pieces.
3) Enter The Void
Directed by Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé is known for making films (I Stand Alone, Irreversible) that grab you by the neck, throw you into the wall and continue to drag you to places you don’t want to be, no matter how hard you resist. With Void, Noé actually puts you in the eyeballs of a young man living in the neon wonderland of Tokyo, with a penchant for the hard stuff, as he walks, breathes and snorts a variety of substances until his violent death — and then the film continues for another hour or so as his soul floats through the city in a psychoactive voyage of visiting people he cared for, has synaptic fires of memories and possibly even becomes a part of his own reincarnation. There’s no real religion in Noé’s vision of the afterlife, but a suspicion that doing drugs may be the closest window to our mind’s own attempt to untangle miles of electric current. And if you can make it through the film's seizure-inducing opening credits, a wild adventure awaits.
2) Altered States
Directed by Ken Russell
Perhaps a little acid was still left in director Ken Russell’s system from filming Tommy; that may have led him to tackle this dark 1980 film, based on the book by Paddy Chayefsky, about a professor (William Hurt) who experiments with LSD, mescaline and ketamine in a sensory deprivation tank in order to experience a wild amount of visual illusions that will expand his mental horizons. When the prof takes an expedition with a Mexican tribe and learns of their methods of shared illusion experiments, he returns with a bizarre plant that bests all of his drugs with its ability to not only cause incredible hallucinations but also physically devolve the man into various forms including, at one point, a mass of primordial goo. That synopsis barely evokes visions of just how terrifying, kaleidoscopic and fucked up Russell’s imagination can be, as it turns these ideas into something bizarrely foundational.
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1) Requiem For A Dream
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film, based on the troubling work of Hubert Selby Jr., can often be found on the list of movies people can only stand seeing once for good reason. The tale of four lives interconnected by heroin and amphetamine addiction and led to their eventual conclusions, Requiem is designed for the audience to see, hear and feel every high and, especially, every low of a drug’s broken rollercoaster. Fittingly, the film sets much of its landscape in the neighborhood surrounding New York’s decrepit Coney Island and the cast — Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans and Ellen Burstyn — plays every bit of desperate addiction to its ugly, leaky hilt. Aronofsky’s visual beats of shooting up became quickly copied in future drug fantasia and the film’s haunting score by Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet takes a terrifying and dangerous turn in the conclusion as we watch, with knowing dread, what is about to happen to the film’s characters as they individually plummet through the elevator shafts of their addictions. Don’t forget to breathe when this requiem reaches its final crescendo.