Tell Judge Jim Thomas to "Feel Me," and he'll slap you with a restraining order.
It's a sensation.
In 1968, The Who were on the ropes. Despite a number of hit singles, the band was struggling to make a name for themselves and were touring almost nonstop. At the same time, Pete Townshend was struggling with a newfound sense of spirituality, looking for a way to bring it to musical life. The resulting album, Tommy, changed the musical landscape and catapulted The Who from just another pop group to the forefront of rock. Eagle Rock's Sensation: The Story of The Who's Tommy (Blu-ray) delves into the album's composition, focusing mainly on what was going on in Townshend's head.
In 1968, Townshend was at a creative crossroads; he had given up psychedelic drugs (after a particularly bad LSD trip) and embraced the teachings of spiritualist Meher Baba, and the concept came out of that newfound sense of enlightenment. The film combines new interviews with Townshend, frontman Roger Daltrey, and several other people involved in the production of the album. The interviews are combined with concert footage and a couple of vintage interviews with John Entwhistle and Keith Moon. It doesn't focus on the recording of the album, nor does it go into the film or Broadway adaptations, save in passing. What it does focus on is the conception of the piece and its development; consequently, the focus is overwhelmingly on Townshend—in fact, at times Daltrey comes across as a bystander in the proceedings.
One striking take-away from the film is that for all of the band's outrageous reputation, both Townshend and Daltrey come across as utterly normal, down-to-earth guys. Another is the incredible passion that Townshend still has for Tommy, despite the intervening years, and it's when he is talking about his attempts to realize his musical vision that the film is most effective, not just as a documentary, but as a gloss on the work itself. From the initial conception of the piece (first expressed in a Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner; the interview, linked in the Accomplices section, is a fascinating glimpse into Townshend's head, not just in terms of Tommy, but in terms of his stage persona).
If there is a weakness in the film, it's in the refusal to look at the work critically. All of the talking heads in the film simply attest to the album's greatness. Mind you, I'm by no means suggesting it isn't. Hell, I've been listening to the album for the first time in years, and the raw energy of the work is still overwhelming. The narrative isn't nearly as clear as in the later versions—really, the story is at best vaguely implied—but at the same time, the focus stays almost exclusively on Tommy and what he is experiencing. All in all, Sensation is a solid complement to the album itself. It's quite timely, too—given that a deluxe edition of the album (4 CDs with all manner of alternate, deleted, and live tracks) was released last year—and certainly a must for Who fans.
This is Eagle Rock, which means the technical side is top shelf. New interviews are all in excellent shape, as you would expect, and the older material has been restored, but some elements did not clean up as well as others. There are two audio tracks, a lossless stereo track as well as a re-mastered DTS-HD 5.1 track. The value of the re-mastered surround audio is minimal, given that we only get snippets of songs. The snippets do sound good, though.
The only extra is some 1969 footage from Beat Club, a German music show. The 30-plus minute segment includes about half of the songs from the album, intercut with some interviews. While the main feature is in 1080i, this material is in 480i. Ideally, they would have included a fully restored video of a full concert performance, but there are no doubt rights issues at work.
Trivia: Townshend had imagined himself singing Tommy's part, but one day he showed up late at the studio, and when he came in, Daltrey was playing around with "See me, Feel Me," and Townshend realized that Daltrey's voice was better suited to the piece.
Sensation: The Story of The Who's Tommy (Blu-ray) provides enough insight into Tommy to warrant a recommendation.
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