An absolute abomination of a movie, “Tommy” (1975) was directed by the ever-controversial Ken Russell. That was the director Pete Townshend actually wanted owing to his artistic background. Pete also thought having Ken along for the ride would free him for having to explain the story ever and ever again, but he was wrong – Russell needed him no less than any other director that the band and (specially) their managers had approached for years on end to get this thing together.
In any case, Ken was to rewrite the whole story, and a major shift took place, as Tommy’s drama was situated outside his family (the lover kills the father here, rather than the other way around) and the film mainly revolves around the attempt to market and sell the deaf, dumb and blind boy’s vision to the world. In other words: Ken Russell’s Tommy is the original work without any innocence or magic. I could barely enjoy the original album, and the little appreciation I had for it stemmed from those two attributes. I don’t need to tell you how much I suffered through the entire running time of this travesty of a movie.
In case you don’t know, this is a musical – there is not an actual line of dialogue spoken. And Daltrey’s best lines are sung by film stars Oliver Reed and Ann Margret. Cameos come from a zillion musicians (Eric Clapton as the Preacher, Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Elton John as the Champ) and actors like Jack Nicholson (he plays the Doctor).
The worst thing about the movie is that it fragmented the band further on after the unsuccessful Quadrophenia tours. If you want to pinpoint the moment Tommy became an albatross around their necks, look no further than this train wreck assembled by Ken Russell. Another sad fact is that since the Who were involved, they were dragged down into the mire as far this pompous movie went.
Highlights? Keith Moon playing the unsettling Uncle Ernie. Elton John playing “Pinball Wizard” (he appears backed by The Who, but the track actually featured his stage band). Elton’s version of the bally table hymn was to be a hit, in fact. You can watch these clips on YouTube. There is no need to go hunting for the whole movie at all. If you loved the original album, it is going to mar your perception of it. And if you couldn’t ever really listen to it to begin with… enough said.