The Who emerged from the mod scene of early-’60s London with an ear-splitting, anarchic, distinctively British version of American garage-rock and soul that they dubbed “Maximum R&B.” But before long, the band’s guitarist and chief songwriter, Pete Townshend, began stretching the limits of what a pop band could be, working in elements of classical music, musical theater, pop-art, camp, and what was then called “sick” humor. Townshend’s experiments reached their apotheosis with Tommy, a double-album rock opera that told the story of a perpetually abused deaf, dumb, and blind boy who grows up to be a guru. As a comment on religion, pop-culture excess, English kitsch, and the exploitation of children, Tommy is more ambitious than coherent, but it does contain some of The Who’s heaviest and most exultant music, so it became the band’s first worldwide smash—going over especially well in concert, where Townshend and his mates stripped the album down to its catchiest, most forceful songs.
Ken Russell’s 1975 movie version of Tommy was a hit too, though it divided Who fans and film critics alike. At the time, Russell had a reputation as a world-class vulgarian, interested first and foremost in cinematic spectacle, to the exclusion of nuance. His Tommy literalizes Townshend’s story, taking special delight in any scene where the hero (played by Who frontman Roger Daltrey) gets beaten or buggered. Guest stars abound, from Elton John to Tina Turner, and for anyone who ever wanted to see Jack Nicholson serenade his ball-busting Carnal Knowledge co-star Ann-Margret in a whispery British accent, Tommy has the goods. Meanwhile, Townshend retooled the music from the original album, using synthesizers to approximate the orchestra he’d always wanted for Tommy, thereby creating a version of his classic that now sounds dated.
And yet, for all that Tommy bungles or overdoes, it’s still a powerful experience, musically and visually. Townshend’s tweaks to his own songs clarify exactly what happens to his hero and why, and even with the synthesizer noodling away, the music has the ferocity of a Who live performance, not some meticulous film score. Meanwhile, Russell’s operatic sensibilities inspire him to try and top each show-stopping number, so that a glimpse of underwear-clad women in gas masks gets trumped a few minutes later by a scene at a Marilyn Monroe-worshipping church where the followers ingest a communion of scotch and sleeping pills—which is trumped yet again later on by a shot of Ann-Margret getting hosed down with baked beans and melted chocolate. And yet Russell is also trying to make a real movie, with performances grounded in real emotions. Unlike abominations like the movie version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—and unlike the majority of eye-popping rock videos that would arrive in the ’80s and ’90s—Tommy drips with sweat and evokes genuine pain and confusion. It isn’t perfect, and that’s what makes it true.
Key features: Just Sony Blu-ray’s usual “MovieIQ” feature (providing real-time trivia and the like), though the disc’s image and sound quality are impressive enough to count as a “key feature” all their own.