Tommy is the quintessential rock opera Ė the most famous work of the rock group The Who, and itís been hailed as Pete Townshendís best writing. Iíve had the music CD for quite a while so I was curious about how the movie would be. I did not even know there was a movie available, although I had heard it had been turned into a Broadway musical and have obviously listened to the CD quite a bit. The story is one that is odd at first glance, but like Madame Butterfly and other musicals/operas it tends to seep into mainstream consciousness and become almost a well known tale even to non-fans.
I jumped at the chance to review this disc and was surprised it was not snapped up by the other review staff.
On researching this movie, some facts had come up which made the initial viewing even more anticipated. The director is Ken Russell whose past works include Crimes of Passion, Salome and the evocatively named Whore. No, restraint is not Mr. Russellís strong suit. I knew what to expect and Tommy lives up fully to that expectation. You do tend to remember scenes from Ken Russell films and this is no exception; itís full of visually arresting, outrageous, even disturbing sequences - however you wonder if that is to what end.
To describe Tommy the musical is to describe Tommy the boy. He is played by a well cast Roger Daltrey (lead singer), although he looks a little old in the role. He does have the wild hair, gangly physique and blank eyes needed for the job.
He plays a boy whose father was a Lancaster pilot in the RAF. He was shot down in an air raid and is presumably dead. His mother is the larger than life Ann Margret; another well cast, Oscar nominated role. She has taken up with Oliver Reed who has become Tommyís stepfather. He is not well cast and heís required to sing, and he sings too much! Also he tends to act like the real Oliver Reed Ė heís forever depicted with a bottle or schooner in his paws and a leer on his face.
Tommy witnesses an incident between his airman father, Ann Margret and Oliver. He is persuaded to forget that it ever happened. In doing so Tommy suffers from psychosomatic deafness, dumbness and blindness.
His disabilities land him in an assortment of really strange and possibly illegal situations due to the fact that he is surrounded by unsavoury characters Ė his mother seems to be the only stabilising force yet she too has her own life and lusts to lead.
However Tommy has a strange skill Ė and that skill will make him rich, cure his ills and make him a quasi-god among his followers. Tommy, through the guidance of his mother and stepfather, forms his own religion and becomes a pawn (or pinball!) in a much larger game. Townshend describes Tommy as an attack on organised religion as well as the commercialisation of religion.
Of particular note are the cameos in this production. Tina Turner, Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Eric Clapton and Keith Moon all make appearances. If youíve always wanted to hear Jack sing, here's your chance.
Tommy is framed 1.33:1 and is of quite good quality. Thereís a bit more damage than Iíd like, with flecks, spots, rings, hairs and cracks on the frame. It is a very colourful production, however the age shows in its relatively poor black levels and isolated grain. Considering its age though itís a very good transfer and I feel itís a credit to the compressionist. I tend to be rather soft on older productions.
Thereís a distinct lack of sharpness in certain sequences and that is accentuated by how itís shot. It tended to be a collage of rather differing styles with some scenes looking like they were purloined from A Clockwork Orange, while others were reminiscent of typical English dramas of the period. Others looked like particularly severe acid flashbacks.
There are some places with some odd lip syncing, which I guess is a byproduct of the music being added in offstage.
There are two tracks; a Dolby 2.0 one at 192k/s and a Linear PCM one at 1,536k/s. Since all DVD players can output PCM I wonder why a Dolby track was included, unless it was to adhere to the DVD consortiumís guidelines.
In any case I did not listen to the Dolby track at all since the PCM track is always available for everyone regardless of equipment.
The soundtrack is merely OK. The uncompressed track is simply capturing what the original analog tape contained, and it shows its age. Itís a brash, abrasive track with little dynamics, although vocal and instrument fidelity is quite acceptable. It was easy to understand most of what was going on because the story tended to guide you along. This is a true musical where everyone is singing, and in that respect Townshend tended to simplify and visualise the plot so as to minimise the need to follow every word.
Thereís no surround information and little front soundstage. Compared to the music CDs, itís a brash, vulgar, unrestrained, almost uncouth soundtrack and presentation.
The original film was shot in Ďquintaphonicí Dolby five channel stereo. I have no explanation either.
There are no extras. The menus are quite nice however; itís modelled on a pinball machine oddly enough. There are no subtitles which is a shame because they would have been wild for karaoke purposes.
Do you like The Who? Thatís the main question. Personally I think Tommy exceeded all of my expectations in a widely unpleasant manner. However itís always a pleasure to watch The Who destroy their guitars, amps and drums on stage.