Tommy is a 1975 British musical fantasy drama film based upon The Who‘s 1969 rock opera album Tommy. Directed by Ken Russell, the film featured a star-studded ensemble cast, including the band members themselves (most notably, lead singer Roger Daltrey, who plays the title role), Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Elton John, Arthur Brown, and Jack Nicholson.
The original release of Tommy used a sound system devised by sound engineer John Mosely called “Quintaphonic Sound”. At the time that the film was in production various “Quadraphonic” (four speaker) sound systems were being marketed to the domestic HiFi market. Some of these were so-called “matrix” systems which combined the four original channels into two which could be recorded on, or transmitted by, existing two-channel stereo systems such as LP records or FM radio. John Mosely used one of these systems (QS Regular Matrix from Sansui) to record front left, front right, back left and back right channels on the left and right tracks of a four-track magnetic striped print of the Cinemascope type. A discrete center channel was also recorded on the center track of the print. The fourth (surround) track on the striped print was left unused. In addition John Mosely used dbx noise reduction on the magnetic tracks.
Unlike the usual multiple small surround speakers used in cinemas, the Quintaphonic system specified just two rear speakers, but of the same type as those used at the front.
One problem that arose was that by the 1970s the four-track magnetic sound system was largely moribund. Only a few theatres were equipped with the necessary magnetic playback heads and other equipment; of those that did in many cases it was not in working order. Thus, in addition to installing the extra electronics and rear speakers John Mosely and his team had to repair and align the basic magnetic playback equipment. Each theatre that showed Tommy using the Quintaphonic system accordingly had to be specially prepared to take the film. In this respect there is a similarity between Tommy and Walt Disney‘s Fantasia, for which a special sound system (Fantasound) had been devised and required each theatre that showed it in the original release to be specially prepared. Also, like Fantasound, Quintaphonic Sound was never used again (five-channel stereo, in the form of 5.1 surround sound, would eventually make a comeback).
Tommy was later released with mono, conventional four-track magnetic and Dolby Stereo soundtracks.
Nora Walker is told that her British fighter pilot husband is missing in action and presumed killed in World War II. On V.E. Day, Nora gives birth to their son, who she names Tommy. While Tommy is an adolescent, Nora marries Frank, a shifty camp counselor. Shortly thereafter, Tommy suffers an emotionally traumatic experience associated with his father and step-father, which, based on things told to him at that time, results in him becoming deaf, dumb and blind, a situation which several people exploit for their own pleasure. As Nora tries several things to bring Tommy out of his psychosomatic disabilities, Tommy, now a young man, happens upon pinball as a stimulus. Playing by intuition, Tommy becomes a pinball master, which in turn makes him, and by association Nora and Frank, rich and famous. Nora literally shatters Tommy to his awakening, which ultimately leads to both the family’s rise and downfall as people initially try to emulate Tommy’s path then rebel against it.
A crazy but wonderful interpretation of a legend’s music
I first came across Tommy when I saw the West End theatre production about 10 years ago, and I instantly fell in love with the music and the plot. However, at the time I was only 11 years old and couldn’t really appreciate the many levels to Tommy. I did watch the film pretty soon after but was constantly comparing it to the show and to me it didn’t even come close.
Now I’m a little older (and hopefully wiser), I have watched the film a lot in the past couple of years and all I can say is WOW! The music is fantastic, Pete Townshend is a genius, and the way he uses it to tell the story is awesome. When you listen to the original Who album a lot is left open to the imagination as regards plot, and I think its important to realise that Ken Russell’s film version is merely one interpretation of the story told by the music.
Having not seen any of Russell’s other work, it’s impossible for me to say that this is typical of him. However, what I will say is that the imagery he uses in the film really does spark a lot of interest, for example the hypocrisy of organised religion and icon worship (particularly when Tommy causes Marlyin Monroe to crash to the floor after the rest of the church have been “brainwashed” by the priests).
A lot of people criticise the film for its cast, particularly Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholsons’ debatable singing abilities. However I feel that this only adds to the sleaziness of their characters, especially Reed’s – I think if he was note perfect it would be out of character. I think Ann Margret is fantastic as Nora – it’s obvious that as Tommy’s mother she feels torn between the love for her son and the love for fame and money, and she portrays that really well. As for Roger Daltrey, what a voice and what a body!!
I think it’s important not to take the film too seriously though, like I said it’s just one interpretation. I feel that “Tommy” as a whole – the music, words, story etc can only be fully appreciated if you listen to and watch as many versions as you can in order to make your own opinion of it.
A fun if overblown rock opera with a cult following, shambolic plot with obvious attacks on religion and an eclectic cast
Author: bob the moo from United Kingdom
27 June 2004
When her husband is lost in WWII, Nora Walker is left with an unborn baby to raise by herself. Years later she has a fantastic son, Tommy, and is being courted by ‘Uncle’ Franks Hobbs. However when Tommy sees Frank and his mother killing his real father, he becomes psychosomatically deaf, dumb and blind. This way he stays all the way through to adulthood regardless of what his mother tries to get him cured. Running away from home one night, Tommy finds himself in a junkyard where he finds an old pinball machine and begins to play it. When he turns out to be a natural born wizard on the pinball table it not only leads him to a cure but also causes a religious following to spring up around him.
Being born in the 1970’s and not really being a retro type of person, I have never gotten into The Who but I am always willing to give a film a try no matter what period it is from or what genre it is. I approached Tommy with hesitancy aware that I may not like the music and that it had a reputation for being all over the place. Well, suffice to say that the latter is certainly true and if you’re coming here looking for structure or decent plotting then you’ll be not only disappointed but also a touch bewildered! The basic plot is an obvious swipe at religion and, as such, I’m rather surprised this film doesn’t have a legacy of Catholic protests (it may do – but usually things like that stick with a film forever, like Life of Brian) following it given the amount of religious imagery in it. It doesn’t totally work as it isn’t clever enough to be really interesting or sharp enough to serve as a clever attack at religion. However it still manages to be great overblown fun from pretty much start to finish.
Credit where credit is due, Ken Russell doesn’t run the risk of being remembered as someone who suffered in moderation – no, if he can have Ann Margaret rolling round on the floor then why not cover her in tinned food product? To that end his direction is relentlessly over the top and it actually helps the material because the plot and music are both over the top and revelling in 1970’s excesses. It is never funny in a comedy sense but it is fun in the same way as going to a big show like Rock Horror can be, it’s hard not to get caught up in the music, performances and sights of the film as everyone is really overdoing it and it’s fun! Not being a fan of The Who, I was still won over by the music here – like a west end show mixed with rock and served on top of sliced ham, it is catchy, overblown and enjoyable to listen to. The cast also help and all manage to deliver their lines well even if some of them are not singers as their day jobs.
In fact the cast is a big part of this film working quite as well as it did – their performances mostly match the overblown feel of the film. Daltry isn’t a great actor but he does well here apart from the odd slip up. Ann Margaret chews the scenery with every chance and her performance is memorable (and I think was Oscar nominated – but I may be wrong). Reed hams it up like a good’un and appears to be enjoying himself immensely – although given the people involved in this film and the legendary habits he had I would not be surprised if it was something other than the film itself that gave him that lecherous leer! The real gold in the film though is a collection of cameos that may not all work but all add to the film: Tina Turner IS The Acid Queen, Elton John gets the best song of the film, Clapton doesn’t make as much of an impression as I would have liked and the presence of Jack Nicholson is as good as it is surprising!
Overall this is a silly, shambolic film that makes very little sense and is not clever enough to make the points about religion that it tries to. However it is overblown, musical and fun to watch with a great collection of people from the period in small roles all through the film. It may frustrate many, which is why it is a ‘cult’ film as opposed to a classic hit but, for all it’s flaws, I found it enjoyable and fun in a big silly OTT way!
It helps to have an appreciation for Ken Russell, not Pete Townsend
Author: moonspinner55 from las vegas, nv
29 June 2001
This is a Ken Russell movie, make no mistake. It is relentlessly twisted, ugly, savage (for a sometimes humorous effect) and trippy. Russell may be the oldest flower child of all time. Surreal plot concerns a deaf-dumb-and-blind boy becoming the new Messiah to a pinball-crazed population, and the film has been accused of being too literal to The Who’s rock opera source material. In this age of lavish music videos, it has also been tagged as archaic. Though nobody seems to care anymore how a film was perceived in its time, I would say the picture still succeeds in doing what was originally intended: shake an audience up with freaky visuals and propulsive music (nicely arranged). It also does something else: creates actual characters from the music, a plus due in part to the fine acting of Ann-Margret as Tommy’s glamorous mother, Roger Daltrey as Tommy, Oliver Reed as Tommy’s stepfather (Reed is hammy but quite game, while the role is designed as both a villain and a hero), and Tina Turner, an extremely scary presence as the Acid Queen. “Tommy” has some bummer scenes, and Russell’s love for degradation occasionally made me wince, but it is a real cinematic experience. Whether it involves or alienates the viewer depends on their appreciation for the English director’s constant penchant for the bizarre. **1/2 from ****