Your senses will never be the same.
When 1969 rolled, the British Invasion was in full swing and a band called The Who were struggling to have their sound heard. When their rock opera "Tommy" was released in that same year, it was absorbed by fans as a unique experience (it was, after all, the first rock opera) and it produced one of The Who's most identifiable songs, "Pinball Wizard." "Tommy" was a dark, brooding work with a message about the corruption and hypocrisy of religious institutions, a point that was often lost in The Who's frenetic music. The Who would go on to produce another greater (though less accessible) opera called "Quadrophenia," and, when all was said and done, would be held as the bridge between old, "dinosaur" rock and punk music.
In 1975, Ken Russell filmed a rather startling and unique adaptation of "Tommy," utilizing the talents of The Who and a number of other musical stars to stage what could only be called cinematic excess. This excess manages to faithfully capture the dark themes of "Tommy" without destroying the music that took the album to greatness. Previously released on DVD as a nearly bare bones edition, Columbia has integrated Tommy into its Superbit line and re-released it.
Facts of the Case
When Tommy Walker (Roger Daltrey, The Who's lead singer) is only a toddler, his dad is shot down in the war and is presumed dead. Some years later, his mother Nora (Ann-Margret, Viva Las Vegas, Grumpy Old Men) meets the head counselor at Tommy's summer camp and eventually marries him. Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed, Gladiator) is an okay enough stepfather, though he isn't so much interested in Tommy as he is in partying and having sex with Nora. When Tommy's father returns home suddenly from the war, Frank murders him and Tommy is a witness to these horrifying events. When Nora tells Tommy to forget everything he's seen and heard, he takes it too far and becomes deaf, dumb, and blind. Nora tries everything from religion to drugs to psychotherapy to break Tommy free from his isolated world within, but nothing seems to work. As Tommy grows older, he's subjected to physical torture from Cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas, The Jazz Singer) and sexual abuse from his demented Uncle Ernie (the one and only Keith Moon). Finally, Tommy happens upon a junkyard and stumbles into a working pinball machine. Discovering that he has the affinity to play pinball, Tommy becomes the pinball champion of the world. With the fame and riches that come with such stature, Tommy finally breaks free from his silence and a religious cult worshipping Tommy grows to worldwide levels.
There is no doubt in my mind that The Who is easily the greatest rock band ever in the history of music. The songwriting talent of Pete Townshend was blended perfectly with the wild, energetic style of the band as a whole (something that was a bit of a spectacle at live performances). With the release of "Tommy," The Who demonstrated that they were on the scene for good and it's a well-established fact that they perfected music in 1971 with the release of their album "Who's Next." I will not argue about this.
With that, Ken Russell's collaboration with The Who is really something of a mixed bag. What we essentially have with Tommy is a work that upholds the core values and messages of the source material coupled with outrageous imagery. This is a music video long before MTV decided to do everything in its power to ruin music and pull society into a spiraling black hole of decay from which there is no escape. Tommy is indicative of the era of experimental filmmaking, falling into similar company with films like Brian de Palma's polarizing Phantom of the Paradise or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While Tommy has finally sated my fantasy of seeing Ann-Margret cavort in a tight body stocking and roll around in gallons of baked beans (and who doesn't have that fantasy?), some might be puzzled, shocked, and frightened by these images. Russell succeeds at blending the psychedelic sights with the sounds throughout Tommy, all the while never letting the audience get a breath of fresh air. This is about as close to the sensory overload of a rock concert without actually being at a rock concert. Tommy's themes of hypocrisy and corruption in religion are equally poignant today (just pick up any newspaper for proof), while the darker elements regarding child abuse seem to have recently gotten Pete Townshend in hot water with Scotland Yard (we'll see how this turns out). Through all the flamboyancy, Tommy remains a mature film in an immature body. Every scene doesn't necessarily work (the aforementioned scene with the baked beans was just weird), but as a whole Tommy hits more than it misses.
Russell and Townshend had the fortune of enlisting the help of some notable talent. Flamboyant performer Elton John shows up to portray the pinball champion (belting out "Pinball Wizard" in the only portion of Tommy recorded live), Eric Clapton shows up as The Preacher, and Tina Turner seems to be the perfect choice to play the Acid Queen. This is on top of on screen performances by The Who themselves, with the never sedate Pete Townshend windmilling and smashing a guitar, the always sedate John Entwistle providing his trademark bass accompaniment, and the crazed Keith Moon pounding away on drums as well as starring as the demented and unbalanced Uncle Ernie. Daltrey's portrayal of Tommy Walker is spot on (he seems drugged through most of the film), and his defiant rendition of "I'm Free" is the foundation of Tommy. Musical talent was also displayed by the non-musician cast members, as well. Oliver Reed manages to belt out a few songs when he needs to, and Ann-Margret (often maligned by fans of The Who because of this role) is surprisingly good in Tommy; her singing voice portrays the proper edge between sympathetic victim and scheming vixen. I'll point out that my general bias towards redheads is in no way compromising this opinion, since I'll also point out that every single redhead I've ever met has been clinically insane. (Before I start getting threats and hate mail, I'll state for the record that I am convinced if I ever needed to argue before the Supreme Court that all redheads are clinically insane that I've amassed enough evidence in my lifetime to prove this beyond any reasonable doubt, but I will concede that this is in no way representative of all females with red hair nor is it in any way a proper scientific sample from which to make this judgment. Now, please, put down the knife.)
Of course, if you're reading this review, you probably know about all of that stuff and really want to know about the Superbit specs that Columbia has set forth. Columbia's Superbit line promises that every bit of space on the DVD is being used to provide absolute best picture and sound by doubling (mostly) the bit rate by removing any special features that could have or would have been included on the DVD. (For the record, the previous release of Tommy on DVD included a documentary on the audio restoration that was done for the transfer.) Apart from that, the exclusion of the full frame transfer (good riddance, actually) and the inclusion of a DTS track, there is no real difference between the previous release and the Superbit edition of Tommy. When Columbia claims that Superbit gives the "highest resolution picture," this is something of a misstatement, seeing as how I've seen other DVDs with better picture. In the case of Tommy, the "higher resolution" lets you observe the grain, scratches, and dust mites imbedded in the original film stock with greater clarity. If you're going to spend money providing a clearer transfer (my opinion is that this is a higher bitrate transfer taken from the original DVD), then it's my advice that spending a little money to actually clean up the source material would be in order. While I normally wouldn't be overly critical of the condition and age of the source material, I believe it to be warranted in this case. I've seen films that predate Tommy by decades look much more impressive on DVD when a little bit of effort is put into the remastering, but it does not seem that any care was given to Tommy. The sound for the original release was remastered into a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo Surround mix, and that soundtrack is included on the Superbit release along with a new DTS track. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any notable difference between the two tracks. I'm a firm believer in DTS, but I don't believe this track warrants spending an extra eight bucks (or so) on this DVD. Sorry, Columbia, try again. As far as special features go, I'd really have loved to have seen a nice Special Edition with Tommy that maybe included Barry Brown's outstanding documentary "The Who's Tommy, An Amazing Journey." Could this not have been worked out? I'd have paid extra money for this! Is anyone at Columbia listening?
If you enjoyed other '70s films like A Clockwork Orange, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Phantom of the Paradise (a film I panned on this site), then chances are you will enjoy Ken Russell's Tommy. If you're a fan of The Who, this is also worth a look, though what you see is definitely not for every cinematic palate. Or if you just need to see Ann-Margret roll around in baked beans, then this film is for you.
The Who and Ken Russell are all found not guilty for producing a timeless music and one messed up film. Columbia TriStar, on the other hand, is guilty of the continuous price-gouging and flimflammery known as "Superbit." And always remember "That deaf, dumb and blind boy, sure plays a mean pinball."
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