ⓘ Tommy (1975 film)

Tommy (1975 film)

ⓘ Tommy (1975 film)

Tommy is a 1975 British operetta fantasy drama film based upon The Whos 1969 rock opera album Tommy about a "psychosomatically deaf, mute, and blind" boy who becomes a pinball champion and religious leader. Directed by Ken Russell, the film featured a star-studded ensemble cast, including the band members themselves, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Elton John, and Jack Nicholson.

An independent production by Russell and Robert Stigwood, Tommy was released by Columbia Pictures in the US on 19 March 1975 while in the UK it was released on 26 March 1975. Ann-Margret received a Golden Globe Award for her performance and was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Pete Townshend was also nominated for an Oscar for his work in scoring and adapting the music for the film. The film was shown at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition. In 1975, the film won the award for Rock Movie of the Year in the First Annual Rock Music Awards.


1. Plot

In the prologue, set in 1945, a montage displays the honeymoon of Captain Walker Robert Powell and his wife, Nora Ann-Margret "Prologue - 1945". After his leave ends, Walker goes off to fight in World War II as a bomber pilot, but is shot down during a mission. "Captain Walker" is listed as missing in action and is presumed dead, although - unknown to his family - the badly burnt Walker is in fact alive. Back in England, Nora goes into labour and gives birth to a son, Tommy, on V-E Day. Five years later, Nora has begun a new relationship with Frank Oliver Reed, a worker she and Tommy meet on vacation. Tommy looks up to his "Uncle" Frank who expresses his desires to run his own holiday camp someday "Bernie’s Holiday Camp". In the 1950s, Nora and Frank dream of their future "1951/What about the Boy?", but, late that evening, encounter the returning Captain Walker. He surprises Frank and Nora in bed, leading to a struggle where Frank kills the Captain. The heat of the moment panics Tommy into a psychedelia-like "Amazing Journey", where he outwardly appears "deaf, dumb, and blind".

As time passes, Nora and Frank make several fruitless attempts to bring the now older Tommy Roger Daltrey out of his state "Eyesight to the Blind" "Acid Queen" and keeps him in the company of some questionable babysitters "Cousin Kevin"Fiddle About". They become more and more lethargic at the lack of effect and leave Tommy standing at the mirror one night, allowing him to wander off. He follows a vision of himself to a junkyard pinball machine. Tommy is recognized by Frank and the media as a pinball prodigy, which is made even more impressive with his catatonic state. During a championship game, Tommy faces the "Pinball Wizard" Elton John with The Who as the backing band. Nora watches her sons televised victory and celebrates his and her success and luxury, but finds she cant fully enjoy it due to the extremity of Tommys condition "Champagne".

Frank finds a Specialist Jack Nicholson for Tommy, who comes to the conclusion that Tommys state is triggered emotionally rather than physically. The only hope, he says, is to continue putting Tommy in front of his reflection "Go to the Mirror". Noras growing frustration prompts her to throw Tommy through the mirror, causing him to snap to full consciousness and run away momentarily "Im Free". Tommy reveals that his experiences have transformed him and decides that he wants to transform the world "Mother and Son" / "Miracle Cure".

Tommy goes on lecture tours which resemble glam rock gospel shows and spreads a message of enlightenment by hang glider, gaining friends and followers everywhere he goes "Sally Simpson" / "Sensation". Tommy and a more enlightened and elated Nora and Frank welcome converts to their house, which quickly becomes too crowded to accommodate everyone. Tommy opens an extension for his religious campus "Welcome" / "Tommys Holiday Camp".

The converts, confused about Tommys odd practices and his familys commercial exploitation of the compound, wrathfully demand Tommy teach them something useful. Tommy does so, deliberately deafening, muting, and blinding everyone, only to inadvertently invoke a riot. The followers kill Nora and Frank and destroy the camp in a fire "Were Not Gonna Take It". Tommy finds his parents in the debris and mourns before escaping into the mountains from the beginning of the film. He ascends the same peak where his parents celebrated their honeymoon, celebrating the rising sun "Listening to You".


2.1. Production Development

Tommy was written in 1968 and recorded by the Who in 1969. Three years later a version of the opera was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. The two albums sold ten million copies between them.

Film rights were bought by Robert Stigwood who secured finance from Columbia. Beryl Vertue of the Stigwood Organisation was executive producer. Stigwood also arranged for Ken Russell to direct.

Russell admitted he did not like the music - he disliked rock music in general - but he loved the theme of the film, being about a messiah.

According to Russell, several scripts had been written by the time he came on the project. He later wrote "some were well written, some were not, but they all had one thing in common - a big negative. They were not about a deaf dumb and blind boys spiritual journey from darkness to light."

Russell did up his own treatment of the story as he saw it. He said "This in no way deviated from his original but plugged in the gaps where I found the story obscure or just non existent." Russell said Townshend liked most of his suggestions and wrote new material.

Russell and Townshend worked on the film together for a year. Russell had been working on a script called The Angels which was to star Mia Farrow about a pop star called Poppy Day who becomes a messianic figure, and reworked some of that scripts sequences for Tommy. He also used scenes from another unfilmed script of his, Music about a composer who writes music for TV commercials this turned into what became known as the "baked beans" scene with Ann Margret.The main change Russell made to the story was that both Tommys mother and lover were complicit in the death of Tommys father.


2.2. Production Casting

It was announced that Roger Daltrey would play Tommy and Keith Moon would play Uncle Ernie. Various rumours spread over who would play other cast members with names such as David Bowie, Elton John, Barbra Streisand and Mick Jagger being mentioned.

Daltrey was cast at Russells specific request, over the wishes of Daltreys own management.

In December it was announced Ann-Margret would play Tommys mother. Ann-Margret was cast because, according to Russell, "I needed a superb singer."

Jagger was reportedly offered the role of The Acid Queen but insisted on singing three of his own songs so the role was given to Tina Turner.

Jack Nicholson agreed to play a small role because "Russells films intrigue me, some I like very much, some I dont like at all, and I want to find out what makes them tick."

Russell says Pete Townshend wanted Tiny Tim to play Pinball Wizard but Stigwood overruled him. Elton John initially turned down the role of the Pinball Wizard and among those considered to replace him was David Essex, who recorded a test audio version of the "Pinball Wizard" song. However, producer Robert Stigwood held out until John agreed to take the part, reportedly on condition that he could keep the gigantic Dr. Martens boots he wore in the scene.


2.3. Production Filming

Filming started April 1974 and took place over twelve weeks.

In his commentary for the 2004 DVD release of the film, Ken Russell stated that the opening and closing outdoor scenes were shot in the Borrowdale valley of the English Lake District, near his own home, the same area that he had used to double for rural Austria and Bohemia in his earlier film Mahler, in which Robert Powell had starred.

Much of the film was shot on locations around Portsmouth, including the scene near the end of the film featuring the giant pinballs, which were, in fact, obsolete buoys found in a British Navy yard, which were simply sprayed silver and filmed in situ. The Bernies Holiday Camp ballroom sequence was shot inside the Gaiety Theatre on South Parade Pier. Exterior shots were filmed at Hilsea Lido Russell had worked there before making The Boy Friend.

The Sally Simpson interior sequence was filmed in the Wesley Hall in Fratton Road, Portsmouth. The exterior intro sequence to the scene, however, shows Sally Simpson buying a badge and entering South Parade Pier.

On 11 June 1974, the pier caught fire and was badly damaged while the production was filming there. According to Russell, the fire started during the filming of the scene of Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed dancing together during the "Bernies Holiday Camp" sequence; smoke from the fire can be seen drifting in front of the camera in several shots. Russell also used a brief exterior shot of the building fully ablaze during the scenes of the destruction of Tommys Holiday Camp by his disillusioned followers.

The Pinball Wizard sequence was shot at the Kings Theatre in Southsea and the two pinball machines used were a 1965 Kings & Queens by Gottlieb - used by Roger Daltrey - and a Gottlieb Buckaroo also from 1965, used by Elton John. The machines scoring displays were modified from their originals for the scene, to accommodate for large scores. Others on Portsdown Hill, which overlooks Portsmouth and local churches were used. All Saints in Commercial Road was used for the Sally Simpson wedding scene, whilst the meeting in the same sequence was filmed at the Wesley Hall in Fratton Road. The Eyesight to the Blind sequence was filmed at St Andrews Church in Henderson Road in Southsea. The other church featured was Warblington Church near Havant in Hampshire.

The famous scene in which Ann-Margrets character hallucinates that she is cavorting in detergent foam, baked beans, and chocolate reportedly took three days to shoot. According to Russell, the detergent and baked bean sequences were "revenge" parodies of real-life TV advertisements he had directed early in his career, although the baked bean sequence also references one of the cover photos and a parody radio ad from The Whos 1967 album The Who Sell Out. Russell also recalled that Ann-Margrets husband, Roger Smith, strongly objected to the scene in which she slithers around in melted chocolate.

During the filming, Ann-Margret accidentally struck her hand on the broken glass of the TV screen, causing a severe laceration, and Russell had to take her to hospital to have the wound stitched, although she was back on set the next day. The film also includes a scene in which Mrs. Walker watches a parodic TV advertisement for the fictional product "Rex Baked Beans"; the costumes in this segment were originally made for the lavish masked ball sequence in Richard Lesters version of The Three Musketeers, and the dress worn by the Queen in the Rex ad is that worn by Geraldine Chaplin in the earlier film.

Russell recalled that Townshend initially balked at Russells wish to have The Who performing behind Elton in the sequence they did not perform the audio here, and also objected to wearing the pound-note suits, which were in fact stitched together from novelty pound-note tea-towels.

On The Whos involvement with the film, members Daltrey played the title character; Moon played, in essence, a dual role as both Uncle Ernie and as himself along with Entwistle and Townshend miming on their respective instruments in the "Eyesight to the Blind" and "Pinball Wizard" segments.

About his role as the Specialist, Jack Nicholson stated: "In my whole career there was only one time when a director said to me, OK, come right down the pike and just look beautiful, Jack. That was Ken Russell on Tommy."

Filming finished in September 1974. Russell then edited the film and supervised the recording of the soundtrack.

When it was done Russell said "I think its probably the one thing Ive ever done that satisfies me aesthetically. The fact that its a rock opera as well is a tremendous bonus because people will come see it."


3. Reception

Box office

The film was a box office hit. By August 1975 it earned $27 million in the US alone. It made over $1 million in France.

Russell later called it "the most commercial film Ive ever made".


3.1. Reception Box office

The film was a box office hit. By August 1975 it earned $27 million in the US alone. It made over $1 million in France.

Russell later called it "the most commercial film Ive ever made".


3.2. Reception Critical response

The film currently holds a 74% approval rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 31 reviews, with an average grade of 6.83 out of 10. The critical consensus reads, Tommy is as erratic and propulsive as a game of pinball, incorporating The Whos songs into an irreverent odyssey with the visual imagination that only director Ken Russell can conjure."

Vincent Canby of The New York Times declared, "It may be the most overproduced movie ever made, but there is wit and reason for this. It is the last word in pop art. Everything, including the sound level, is too much. But even this works in an odd way. The victim of the movie is as much the person sitting in the audience as it is Tommy." Variety called the film "spectacular in every way," adding, "The production is magnificent, the multitrack sound tradenamed Quintophonic terrific, the casting and acting great, and the name cameos most showmanly." Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, and praised Ann-Margret as being "simply great as Tommys mother". He called the pinball tournament sequence "the movies best single scene: a pulsating, orgiastic turn-on edited with the precision of a machine gun burst." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune awarded two-and-a-half stars out of four, calling the film "a disappointing, slap-dash pictorialization of the fine music of The Who," with "no cinematic flow." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called the film "an overwhelming, thunderous, almost continuously astonishing achievement, coherent and consistent from first frames to last." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote that the music of the original album "had a certain obscure dignity and integrity, and these qualities dont withstand the Russell treatment. On record Tommy seemed a bit mysterious. On screen its just banal." Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that "even at its most lacklustre and tasteless junctures, Tommy is never boring, and always full of energy; and given the very loose framework and imprecise plot that Russell has to work with, this is no small achievement."

Perry Seibert of AllMovie gave the film four stars out of five and described it as "continuously watchable, but the film version of Tommy sacrifices the fragile emotional core of Pete Townshends work for grandiose spectacle."

Tommy was a great film," said Ol Dirty Bastard. "A blind, deaf kid who could play pinball. What a very great idea."


4. Quintaphonic Sound

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 centre channel was also recorded on the centre 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 Disneys 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.

Tommy was later released with mono, conventional four-track magnetic and Dolby Stereo soundtracks.


5. Changes from the album

Unlike other filmed rock operas such as that of Pink Floyds The Wall, the album is never dubbed over the film; the different actors – including Nicholson and Reed, neither of whom was known for his singing ability Reeds characters songs were cut from Oliver!, and Nicholsons in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever appeared only in the now-lost roadshow version – perform the songs in character instead of The Who, with the exception of Daltrey as Tommy and where Townshend sings narration in place of recitative.

Because of this, all the songs are rerecorded and the song order is shuffled around considerably; this and the addition of several new songs and links creates a more balanced structure of alternating short and long sequences. A large number of songs have new lyrics and instrumentation, and another notable feature is that many of the songs and pieces used on the film soundtrack are alternate versions or mixes from the versions on the soundtrack album.


5.1. Changes from the album Differences between 1969 and 1975 versions

  • A new linking theme, "Extra, Extra, Extra", narrates Tommys rise to fame and introduces the battle with the pinball champ. It is set to the tune of "Miracle Cure" and precedes "Pinball Wizard".
  • "Sensation", featuring extra lyrics, is moved forward and covers the spread of Tommys new religion. In the film it occurs between "Sally Simpson" and "Welcome".
  • In "Sally Simpson", the album version mentions her fathers Rolls-Royce as blue, but the film changes the lyrics to black the Rolls-Royce in the film is also black.
  • The CD reissue of the soundtrack album opens with a newer, previously unreleased version of "Overture From Tommy", which was not included either in the film or on the original soundtrack LP. Although the track is listed in the CDs song credits as being performed by The Who, it is actually a Pete Townshend solo number with him playing all the instruments as with "Prologue – 1945" and other tracks – neither John Entwistle or Keith Moon appears on it, as they do on all other selections on the soundtrack credited to "The Who," regardless of whether Roger Daltrey performs as vocalist.
  • A new song, "Bernies Holiday Camp", which follows "Captain Walker/Its A Boy", portrays Tommys childhood and his mothers romance with Hobbs Oliver Reed. The song also features the melody from, and even foreshadows, "Tommys Holiday Camp".
  • A three-minute version of the "Sparks" theme precedes "Extra, Extra, Extra" and "Pinball Wizard". In the film, it is used behind the sequence of the dazed Tommy wandering into a junkyard and discovering a pinball machine. The music on the film soundtrack for this and many other songs is heavily edited, however, and is a noticeably different mix from the version on the soundtrack album.
  • In the album version of "Sally Simpson", the title character jumps on the stage and brushes Tommys cheek, but in the movie she is kicked off the stage before she can get close to Tommy.
  • The running order of "The Acid Queen" and "Cousin Kevin" is reversed.
  • The running order of "Christmas" and "Eyesight to the Blind" is reversed; references to pinball are removed from "Christmas" and the character of The Hawker becomes The Preacher Clapton, leader of the Marilyn Monroe cult. Arthur Brown is cast as the character The Priest in the film, and sings a verse in the song but is not featured on the soundtrack. According to Russells DVD audio commentary, the concept of people literally worshipping celebrities in this case Marilyn Monroe and several other elements in the film were adapted from his pre-existing treatment for a film about false religions, which he had developed prior to Tommy but for which he had never been able to secure financial backing.
  • "Pinball Wizard" has extra lyrics and movements. It features guitar and keyboard solos the guitars are only readily discernible on the soundtrack album, and an outro with a riff reminiscent of the Whos first single, "I Cant Explain".
  • "Sally Simpson" is re-arranged with a Bo Diddley beat and in the film is preceded by "Miracle Cure" - which features an extra verse.
  • "Underture" is removed but parts from it have been re-arranged as "Sparks".
  • A new linking piece, "T.V. Studio", is used between "Welcome" and "Tommys Holiday Camp".
  • "The Amazing Journey" shortened to three minutes has almost completely different lyrics, and the "guide" from the album is depicted as Tommys dead father, rather than the "tall stranger" in a "sparked, glittering gown" from the album. A new introduction is also added in lieu of the "Deaf, dumb, and blind boy; hes in a quiet vibration land." from the album. The movie version also ends with different fantastic lyrics, going "His eyes are the eyes that transmit all he knows, The truth burns so bright it can melt winter snows. A towering shadow, so black and so high, A white sun burning the earth and the sky.".
  • "Go to the Mirror" is shortened, not featuring the elements of "Listening To You", nor the phrase "Go to the mirror, boy."
  • "Im Free" is moved earlier, and now follows "Smash The Mirror!" was done on the 1972 symphonic album; it covers the lavish psychedelic sequence depicting Tommys reawakening.
  • In "Sally Simpson", the album version describes Tommy giving a lesson. In the film, Tommy gives a lesson, and the lyrics are changed to the words of the lesson.
  • "Im Free" is followed by a new song, "Mother and Son", which depicts Tommys rejection of materialism and his vision for a new faith based around pinball.
  • The film opens with a new instrumental, "Prologue – 1945" partly based on the 1969 "Overture", which accompanies the opening sequences of Captain Walkers romance and disappearance.
  • The storys setting is updated so that the action goes through modern times modern as of the 1970s. From this, the track "1921" from the album is changed to "1951" and is made a medley, being titled "What About the Boy?" on the soundtrack, in which Capt. Walker dies instead of the lover Frank, in this context.
  • "The Acid Queen", "Cousin Kevin", "Fiddle About", and "Sparks", linked by three renditions of "Do You Think Its Alright?", form an extended sequence depicting Tommys inner journey and his trials.
  • "Its A Boy" is separated from "Overture" and becomes the medley "Captain Walker/Its A Boy"; in the film this medley narrates the aftermath of Walkers disappearance, the end of the war and the birth of Tommy.
  • A new song, "Champagne", which follows "Pinball Wizard", covers the sequence of Tommys stardom and wealth and his parents greed. Like many other songs, it features Tommy singing "See Me, Feel Me" interludes: this is the first song with Daltrey singing for Tommy. In the film but not on the soundtrack, the song is introduced by a mock TV commercial - reminiscent of the Whos early years when they made jingles.
  • The 1969 albums closing track "Were Not Going To take It" is split into two pieces, "Were Not Gonna take It" and medley "See Me Feel Me/Listening To You"; this covers the climactic film sequences of Tommys fall from grace and his final redemption and opens with an extra chorus sung by the crowd "These pricey deals dont teach us.".

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