Sometimes it takes me a while to dive into things that would seem to be a natural for someone like myself. Being a huge fan of The Who and composer Pete Townshend, one would rightly assume that I might have been first in line to get a copy of the 1975 film version of Tommy when it came out on Blu-ray in 2010.
I wasn’t. In fact, I have waited until now for it to appear at a bargain price — $12.99 — to want to check it out.
I’m glad I waited.
Don’t get me wrong, the film looks great in all its Ken Russell-produced, over-the-top technicolor-dream-coated splendor. It also sounds real good, presented in DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround as well as the original “Quintaphonic” (5.0) soundtrack that was used in the theaters back in the day. According to the liner notes in the disc they went back through hundreds of reels of magnetic film to find the best elements for the soundtrack restoration. That is all fine and cool.
So why am I glad I waited?
Well, because this film is that sort of moment when The Who unknowingly jumped the shark (if you will) taking Tommy into territories that may have sold a lot of movie tickets and soundtracks, but didn’t do much (in my humble opinion) for the reputation of dear Tommy. It took another 20 plus years to resurrect and do the lad’s story justice as a Broadway musical (with book by Townshend and Des McAnuff). I’d like to think that Mr. Townshend learned many things from the making of the Tommy movie and (I would guess — pure speculation on my part here) that he tried to not fall prey to the same pitfalls again with the Broadway production (which I saw here in San Francisco and it was spectacular!).
There are fun parts to the Tommy movie: Elton John’s “Pinball Wizard” scene is brilliant mad fun and its worth the price of admission to see Eric Clapton as a sort of holy deity character — echoes of the old “Clapton is God” graffiti from the 60s — walking barefoot through the church of the mother Marilyn (Monroe) backed by his disciples from The Who. Its a tripped out scene which makes little sense and is just wonderful and fabulous. Tina Turner as the “Acid Queen” is brilliant as well. Keith Moon’s Uncle Ernie is hysterical and Paul Nicholas’ Cousin Kevin is a wonderfully demonic proto-punk.
It has been interesting seeing this film again with fresh perspective and 20/20 hindsight. When I first saw it back in the day I really loathed it. Today I see it was very much a product of the times and perhaps even a harbinger of the more cheese-ball madness to come from a rock / pop business world unsure of where to go next (the Sgt. Pepper movie, Xanadu, Grease, etc.).
I no longer loathe Tommy: The Movie and respect it for what it is.
But, I gotta say, thank the heavens that punk rock happened!
Watching Tommy: The Movie today — especially as a songwriter myself who has been rolling out my own rock opera/musical and currently dealing with the many nuances required of that universe — I can appreciate the challenges Townshend must have endured to bring Tommy to the silver screen. There are significant plot differences and additional songs supporting scenes to help better tell the story to the everyman. These additions don’t necessarily make for a better listening experience of Tommy as a rock opera, but it helps to tell the story more directly and visually for the masses.
I get it.
Accordingly, I’ll definitely keep my Blu-ray Disc of Tommy : The Movie, but I’m probably not going to watch it a whole lot more other than for my own educational purposes and the occasional look at key scenes.
Should you get Tommy on Blu-ray? Well, if you love the film, by all means — for about $10, why not? If you are looking for a spectacular and immersive surround sound experience, then I would definitely pass on this. I would perhaps suggest that you get the Criterion reissue/restoration of The Who’s second film based on Townshend’s rock opera Quadrophenia — that has a wonderful soundtrack which is genuinely immersive and was restored and remixed entirely from the ground up from the original multitrack tape sources (not just the film elements). It is overall a much better (albeit, very different) film.
Or just pick up a copy of the original Tommy (newly re-released on Blu-ray audio in 5.1 surround) and bask in the original recording’s splendor. That remains an amazing journey…
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.