Tommy Guns

Tommy Guns and the Cinematic Legacy of Demis Roussos

Neil Young

As well as being one of 2022’s finest films, Tommy Guns is for various tricky reasons also one of the toughest to write about. I tried my best at Locarno when I reviewed the genre-bending war/horror/mystery film — mainly set in a strange military compound, maybe in mid-70s Angola – for Screen. Highlighting a sequence in which dancer/sex-worker Apolonia (Anabela Moreira) performs a sensual routine to the soaring 1970 ballad Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall by prog-trio Aphrodite’s Child, I noted back then it was distinguished by the golden throat of vocalist Demis Roussos, delivering notes of almost superhuman intensity.

To any European of fifty or over, Demis Roussos remains a familiar name. For younger generations, he has been somewhat overshadowed by his Aphrodite’s Child bandmate/songwriter, Evangelos Papathanassiou aka Vangelis, the celebrated composer of Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner (which features Roussos on one of the tracks) who died this year aged 79. Roussos was only 68 when he passed on in 2015, but those of us who recall his continent-conquering prime were surprised he made it beyond 50. He was, in every sense, massive back then, his vast form habitually cloaked in an ornate kaftan as he graced myriad European stages and studios.

Experiencing that Tommy Guns scene, in which the sexual frustrations of the film’s khaki-clad protagonists are brought further to the boil with every quivering note, the idea struck me that most films would benefit from the inclusion of a Roussos vocal. And quite a few already have. His cultural impact was first cinematically immortalised in Mike Leigh’s enduringly popular Abigail’s Party (1977). To enliven the flagging mood, soirée hostess Beverley (Alison Steadman) sticks on Roussos’ sole UK number one, Forever and Ever, and is swept into a tingling state of quasi-erotic bliss. “D’you think he’s sexy, Ange?” Beverley asks her guest, Angela (Janine Duvitski). “Yes,” Angela replies, “It’s a pity he’s so fat.” “Yeah,” counters Beverly, “But he doesn’t sound it, though, when you hear him?”

While Roussos is intended to underline the unbearable Beverly’s kitschy bad taste, the joke is ultimately on Leigh: Roussos was and is fantastic. Forever and Ever may not be the finest showcase of his talents, but many who only know his “cheesy” solo hits are startled to learn about the eminently respectable and low-key influential Aphrodite’s Child era. Their 1972 double-album 666 instantly become a favourite among the psychedelic crowd, and shows up in the oddest places. Two consecutive songs (kiddie-vocal Loud Loud Loud and Roussos-voiced The Four Horsemen) comprised the entire soundtrack of Yugoslavian experimentalist-provocateur Ljubomir Šimunić’s mindblowing 1976 short Gerdy, The Wicked Witch, for example. And I tipped my own hat to Šimunić (and Roussos) with my recent effort The Rising Sun, where I took Jean-Gabriel Périot’s poetic 2007 Hiroshima chronicle 200 000 fantômes and replaced the mournful score with Roussos’ barnstormingly bombastic cover of House of the Rising Sun. Also a fan: Argentina’s reigning auteur Lucrecia Martel, who elevated a moving passage in The Headless Woman (2008) by judiciously interpolating Roussos’ single Mamy Blue.

And so Tommy Guns takes its place in a noble nano-genre: films respectfully deploying the
transcendent tones of the one and only Mr Artemios Ventouris-Roussos. In Carlos Conceição’s tremendous, changeable picture, Spring, Summer, Winter, and Fall is both a specific chronological signifier and a subtle harbinger of inevitable, imminent transformation: “This last thing / Is passing now / Like summer to spring / It takes me / And wakes me now / Like seasons I’ll change / And then rearrange… somehow.” May there be many more transformative Roussos movie moments to come.

Neil Young is a Vienna-based film-critic and programmer, originally from Sunderland UK, who mainly reviews for Screen International.

This is one of ten essays specifically commissioned for BFF22.

Thursday, 10 November 22 – 6:00pm@ Queen’s Film Theatre. Get your tickets here.