In 1969 The Who followed up their concept album "The Who Sell Out" with the release of another concept album so big it covered two LPs and was promoted as a rock opera. "Tommy" tells the story of a "deaf, dumb, and blind kid" who developed a cult following, and it features some classic Who songs that have become popular on their own accord such as "Pinball Wizard", "I'm Free", and "See Me, Feel Me / Listening to You".
While "Tommy" the album is very much the vision of Pete Townshend, 'Tommy' the movie is very much the vision of director Ken Russell. Changes are made to the story, new music is incorporated, and the visuals consistently overwhelm the viewer throughout, creating a vastly different experience, particularly due to the fact that the actors, some of whom don't sing well, as well as other musicians, sing parts Townshend and Roger Daltrey performed on the album.
Captain Walker (Robert Powell), Tommy's father, disappears during WWII. A young Tommy (Barry Winch) and his mother Nora (Ann-Margaret) attend Bernie's summer holiday camp, where they meet Frank (Oliver Reed). He and Nora begin a relationship and get married. Tommy witnesses a traumatic event and is told "he didn't see it/ he didn't hear it/ he won't say nothing" which is how he ends up deaf, dumb, and blind.
The story flashes forward. Tommy is 10 years older and now played by Daltrey. His parents search for ways to cure him. His mother takes him to see a preacher (Eric Clapton) in the Church of Marilyn where the sacraments are Johnnie Walker Red and pills. Clapton sings Sonny Boy Williamson II's "Eyesight to the Blind" with the rest of The Who playing in support. He barely even touches the strings as he pretends to play it. Frank takes him to see the Acid Queen (Tina Turner) to see if drugs and sex will be able to cure the boy. Turner belts the lyrics out much more intensely than Townshend. The sequence borders on surrealism and may be the trippiest of the entire movie, so plan accordingly.
Tommy's parents get frustrated and don't pay much attention to him. They leave Tommy to be babysat by Cousin Kevin, who tortures him, and Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon), who molests him. Tommy finds solace in a pinball machine and is so good he defeats the Pinball Wizard (Elton John) and becomes the champ, although in the song Tommy is identified as the Pinball Wizard, so the movie confuses me unless it's a title passed on like Heavyweight Champ. Tommy finally gets his senses back and reveals his new-found awareness. He becomes a religious figure to the young, such as young Sally Simpson who reveals her story through a brief aside.
While there are different bits added to the story of Russell's 'Tommy,' it's the last act where the most augmentation takes place. Not sure what Russell intended, but it's silly to see Tommy spreading peace and enlightenment by hang glider, somehow breaking up a pair of biker gangs fighting. Many people come to see Tommy and learn from him, yet quickly rebel against him after he helps them. This is partially due to what is occurring around Tommy and partially what the enlightenment teaches. It also has the feeling of Townshend speaking directly to his fans, telling them not to put him up on a pedestal to be worshipped.
'Tommy' is visually audacious and the incredible images are amazing to see, earning it a bonus point, but it gets to be a bit too much style over substance before it's all said and done. The movie most often loses focus when it departs from the album and pads the story. Townshend created a concise 74-minute story. The extra 37 minutes Russell adds don't improve upon it. 'Tommy' is worth seeing once, but only the album is worth revisiting.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony brings 'Tommy' to high-definition on a BD-25 Blu-ray disc housed inside a standard blue keepcase. The disc goes straight to the menu. It is reported to play in Regions A and B.
'Tommy' is given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer with an aspect ratio 1.85:1 that is one of brightest and most colorful I've seen in a film from the '70s. Many examples of Russell and his team's work can be cited. From the flags and streamers flying in the courtyard during Tommy's birth to the graveyard littered with small wooden crosses adorned with red flowers set into the green grass where the detail is so good the individual blades can be seen. The brilliant vibrancy can be seen in the reds on Christmas morning and the yellows in the bathroom while Cousin Kevin babysits.
Blacks look inky, and there is good contrast throughout. There are many details on display that have sharp, well-defined edges. Textures can be seen in the weathered tenement building walls to the shiny iron maiden-like device the Acid Queen put Tommy in. The best scene to exhibit texture is when Nora watches Tommy play pinball on TV. In her master bedroom, there are different types of white fabric: the shag carpet, her furs and other clothing, and the dressings on the wall.
The only artifact I saw is the very last scene as Tommy stands on a mountaintop as the sun rises early in the morning. There was some minor banding in the lower portion of the frame, possibly caused by clouds or fog distorting the light, but after all that's been shown it hardly seems worth complaining about.
There are two audio options: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Quintaphonic 5.0. The latter is explained in detail within the liner notes but to offer a simple and inadequate explanation, it was a precursor to surround sound used in a movie theatres, but the experiment never went any further than 'Tommy'. Neither show any sign of age and while they each sound very good, it's apparent not as much focus and imagination was given to sound design as there was to production design.
The synth overture and the wind swirl through the surrounds in the opening shots. Later, fires roar, jets fly overheard, and bombs go off in distance. The dialogue is all sung and can be clearly heard in the mix, though that's not always a good thing when Reed or Jack Nicholson are demonstrating their limited capabilities.
The subwoofer gets a very good workout, most notably when John Entwistle is part of the musical arrangement. Too much thumping bass on both audio tracks results in distortion, as Frank hustles people into the strip club. A solid rumble of bass can be heard as Tommy's parents try to avoid the aerial bombing in their city.
If the studio isn't going to bother talking to the two remaining members of the band, surely they could include the commentary track from the 2004 DVD release. This is a movie that deserves to have people talking about it!
Although in need of some fine-tuning, 'Tommy' is a wonderful movie of excess not often seen in today's era when studios don't take big gambles. Even though there are moments that don't work for me, it's refreshing to see an artist like Russell try out different ideas. High definition is an ideal format to exhibit its outstanding visuals and top-notch audio. It's a shame there are no extras.
I would recommend listening to The Who's album first to help make better sense of the story. Its inclusion would have been a great treat and the studios should have found a way to make it happen.