The Who’s Tommy (The Film) Turns 40

Still the meanest, and strangest, game of pinball around.


For this Dusting ‘Em Off, we’re going to Tommy’s Holiday Camp. It’s the 40th anniversary of Tommy, Ken Russell’s gonzo adaptation of The Who’s beloved rock opera, and Henry Hauser, Blake Goble, and Len Comaratta are looking at the film, its soundtrack, and the album that inspired it all. While the cult classic may alienate some, there’s no denying that this deaf, dumb, and blind kid sure played a mean pinball.

Henry Hauser (HH): I suspect I’m in the minority here, but I think Tommy (the film) was a major misstep. On their ‘69 LP, The Who offer up the broad brushstrokes of an outlandish tale, empowering listeners to use their imaginations to populate the details and specifics of that story. It’s an interactive exercise, involving a give-and-take between artist and audience.

But with the film, all that goes out the window. We’re forced to adopt Ken Russell’s vision of how to adapt Tommy to the big screen. He sticks his audience in the back seat, rather than putting us right up front with Townshend, Daltrey, Moon, and Entwistle, as the band did on their 1969 album. The brilliance of a rock opera like Tommy is that The Who made their fans active participants in the creative process, affording us space to build our own stories out of their raw material.

The opening montage seems like it’s thrown together from ‘70s soap opera scraps. Set to “Prologue – 1945”, a reworked (and clearly inferior) version of “Overture”, we’re introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Captain Walker, Tommy’s forebearers. They fall madly in love reading poetry atop a mountain, get frisky underneath a frothy waterfall, gently caress each other amidst a field of wildflowers, and stare into each other’s eyes as an elegant chandelier dangles overhead. But disaster strikes when the Luftwaffe start bombing London. Called to duty, Walker enlists to protect his wife and unborn son. He’s soon shot down defending his family, and Nora becomes a British version of Rosie the Riveter. She’s emotionally crushed; not even the birth of her son and the first day of peace can cleanse her thoughts of Captain Walker’s fiery demise. The whole thing is horribly awkward, and the transition to “Bernie’s Holiday Camp”, which thankfully doesn’t appear on the ‘69 album, is even worse.

That being said, the film isn’t lacking in humor and camp value. The cameos are great, with Elton John, Tina Turner, Jack Nicholson, and Eric Clapton all making worthwhile appearances. And the whole psychedelic vibe works pretty well, especially the part where Clapton plays a radical preacher pontificating about Marilyn Monroe to the tune of “Eyesight to the Blind.” You can tell he’d make a really good Televangelist. And how about Tina Turner as the Acid Queen? Tina is totally convincing as an LSD-dealing mystic, but watching Daltrey pretend to navigate a bad trip is cringe-worthy. He just looks like he’s got diarrhea. Tommy is a film that amounts to far less than the sum of its parts, but it’s brimming with outrageously fun little flashes of freakiness and sacrilege.

tommy The Whos Tommy (The Film) Turns 40

Blake Goble (BG): With all due respect, Henry, are you nuts?! Go to the mirror, boy, until the blind can see. Tommy is incredible!

Tommy still fascinates and intrigues me because of its eccentricity. Everything you mentioned, the Acid Queen, the camp cameos, and the ‘50s-era aura, plays at a post-war Baby Boomer pastiche that isn’t shy about taking risks. 1970s, likely drug-fueled risks, but interesting risks nonetheless. What distinguishes this from the arbitrary head-trips of say, Jodorowsky films, or Eraserhead, is that the catchy, triumphant Who music almost reflexively allows us to accept the surreality of the experience. I’d posit that if the album didn’t exist, we’d still be talking about Tommy as one of the most bizarre (and catchy) commercial hits of its decade. You’re right, Tina Turner’s Acid Queen is startling, and Elton John’s hilarious boots stay in mind. How many films can drench the shrill and rambunctious Ann-Margret in soap and beans and chocolate and get her an Oscar nomination? It’s that freakiness that’s both alienating and transfixing, and regardless of the film’s emotional elicitations, Tommy stays with you, stares you down, and can even haunt you.

Mind you, what I’m hearing, and it sounds like you’ve loved the album a long time, is disappointment in adaptation. See I saw this film long before I ever actually listened to the album. I saw it at a young age and was so fascinated and confused by it. It’s funny that you find the score inferior to the album, because I like the synthy, Oscar-nominated score a lot — probably more than the album, but likely because I heard it first. Admittedly, this happens to me a lot. Like hearing and loving 4Star’s “Le Fleur” years before hearing Minnie Ripperton’s in Inherent Vice, and then suddenly being disappointed it’s not the version I know and like. And still, I’m a glutton for The Who. I like both Tommys. A lot.

But I love the feverish gibberish of Ken Russell’s film and how it tries best to literalize their music in odd ways. Film-wise, it’s a total trip.

If anybody was going to adapt this, it was going to be Ken Russell, a literate, musically savvy, thinking man’s stoner director. The guy made a biopic about Tchaikovsky where the famed composer’s head explodes at the end. Russell made a film about Franz Liszt in 1975 that featured a giant parading cock and a fascistic Frankenstein Richard Wagner. Who the hell has the nerve to do that with people’s music these days? Could you imagine a trippy musical comedy with Katie Perry’s music told from the perspective of the Left Shark?

Len Comaratta (LC): Ah yes, Lisztomania. But if you’re going to mention that, you need to drop that it also stars Roger Daltrey. One of the posters for that film even states, “It out-Tommy’s Tommy.” Depending on your position on Tommy, that may or may not entice you to want to watch Lisztomania, in spite of it being directed by Russell. I mean, he wasn’t perfect; he did give us Whore. But you’re right, Blake, that few directors in that time period would have been suited to direct an adaptation of the rock opera.

My position is pretty much down the middle. I agree with what both of you have to say. I agree that Russell’s interpretation of the album may negate any participation that the listener may have engaged in with the original album, but I also say that with slight reservation because, it’s just that – Russell’s interpretation (with some participation by the band). I mean, look at the biggest change: Tommy’s father’s death. The album has him dying in battle. In the film, he’s murdered by his wife’s lover in front of the boy. With a change like that, it could be argued that it’s two different stories that happen to share some similarities. Even the time periods of the two stories are different, WWI versus WWII. But that change isn’t as dramatic. If the film were made today, a director might choose to set it during Vietnam. Regardless of any changes, one would imagine that they were all sanctioned by the band.

That said, we as watchers of these films have to always keep in the corner of our minds that what we are watching is someone else’s interpretation of somebody else’s vision. The same complaint was, is, and will probably always be leveled against the film version of The Wall.

I came to each of these independent of the other. I remember seeing the film on Showtime or HBO back in the early ’80s. I was maybe 10. I was blown away by certain elements, Tina Turner perhaps the biggest. Filled with passion, she just jumped off the screen, simultaneously drawing me in while scaring the living hell out of me. Those needles!?! Oooh, I just had a shiver.

And the music was amazing. I love musicals and the rock-oriented ones of the ’70s, such as Tommy, The Wiz, even The Blues Brothers, and, dare I say, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. They were a blast to watch, especially as a child, even if, as with the latter, it’s not good. I even loved Xanadu.

BG: Len, there’s no shame in loving all of those. I like this road you’re easin’ on down. These movie musicals are funky and dated, but all so damn catchy. And they all benefit from some sort of silliness that seemed to disappear after 1985. Musicals are either adaptations of popular plays, or worse, concert films with like, Bieber at the helm. The ‘70s/’80s movie musical mold had some recklessness to it.

LC: And they all starred so many famous faces and voices. That is perhaps Tommy’s biggest strength, its cast. Musicians aside, Ann-Margret’s award-winning performance elevates the film to a level that at times is precariously balanced between sanity and madness. It’s almost like watching a Samuel Fuller film. And Oliver Reed’s intensity as Tommy’s “uncle” seems to carry with it the same fear-instilling paralysis he had as Bill Sikes in Oliver!. I’m curious. Am I alone in thinking of Eddie Izzard after seeing Reed’s face?

That the cast is so strong makes the film’s weakest element that much more bitter – Roger Daltrey as Tommy. To this day, I still can’t get past his face, with its wide-opened eyes, all doe-like. Now, while I may not know a lot of blind people, I can say that I’ve never seen any looking like Daltrey. I guess we can at least be thankful he didn’t wear dark sunglasses the whole time.

The phrase “rock opera’ is also better suited to the album than the film. The film is a musical that happens to have psychedelic-laden rock and roll imagery providing the songbook. The album is a story told through song that, at the least, is a concept album and, at its best, proof that rock music is art.

HH: Nope, still not convinced. Answer me this: Why did Russell think it was a good idea for Ann-Margret to sing? She totally butchers “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?” and “1951”. Granted, her acting is one of the (few) things that make this film watchable, but her dubbed singing feels so fake! I wish the director had left more Tommy songs intact, rather than fiddling with them to comport with his adaptation.

Musicals aren’t really my cup of tea to begin with, but at least you usually get some dialogue between songs. Here, the film just jumps from one track to the next, with nothing to break up or moderate the flow; it feel oppressive. Plus, the scene where Tommy gets molested by his pedophiliac uncle isn’t exactly artfully rendered. Still, I do like seeing Keith Moon dressed up as a dirty, old drunk.

The “reawakening” montage is actually worse than the opening “1951” mess. Daltrey runs against a green screen, tossing and tumbling amidst waves, a crimson sunset, and billowing clouds. In a rejection of materialism and capitalist greed, he pries the rings from his mother’s fingers, tosses them into the sea, and has a little baptism ceremony. It’s totally over the top. And why, in the next scene, does “Sally Simpson” get set to a Bo Diddley beat? Haven’t enough bands ripped off that reliable riff?

LC: Well, in defense of the non-talking, singing only aspect … it is supposed to be an opera…

BG: Wait, there were green screens in 1975?

HH: I had to do a little digging, Blake, but yes, they had green screens back in ’75. Petro Vlahos actually won an Oscar in 1964 for his “conception and perfection of techniques for color traveling matte composite cinematography.” As far as I can tell, before him the screens were blue.

And Len, that’s a fair point. But who the hell wants to watch an opera on film?  The bravado and force of the opera house is totally lost on celluloid.

But maybe I’m being a teensy-weensy bit harsh. When Daltrey finally hooks up with a pinball machine and a decent version of “Sparks” starts playing, I let out a sigh of relief.  Elton John is great as the Pinball Wizard, prancing around the stage, donning towering Doc Marten Boots and rhinestone-studded specs. In the background, a bearded Pete Townshend smashes his guitar against the stage, as Moon karate kicks his drum set and frantically runs away. It’s not my all-time favorite version of “Pinball Wizard”, but the new guitar and piano solos are legit. And whoever came up with the idea of turning the pinball machine into a piano for Elton John to pound and mash deserves a raise.

What other highlights am I missing, Blake?

BG: Henry, I totally get why you would ask “why?” of this film. It’s an assault of seemingly disparate music and images as we rush our way through the life and times of Tommy Walker. Tommy’s tortured, abused, and stuck deaf, blind, and dumb because of childhood terrors. Play that seriously, and you have a bummer of a movie on your hand. But tell this tale with pizazz and frenzied pacing, and you can accept it as a work of fantasy. I never challenged Tommy on a level of practicality because I don’t think it wants me to. It wants to show me strange things and make me hear interesting noises. Ann-Margret, to me, sounds what a harried mother singing should sound like. Daltrey’s dead-eyed punim serves to ironically contrast the wild and crazy shit happening around him – and when he awakes and runs around, the joy is palpable as he runs and runs like Forrest Gump on acid.

I get excited about the “Listening to You” finale, because oddly enough it works both to be a climax and resolution, a crescendo of mountain-scaling music as Daltrey purifies himself in the waters of his conception. Sure, it’s pretentious, obvious, and a cycle of life sort of thing, but it’s done with such giddy over-the-top drama. It’s post-plot in a way. Story doesn’t matter, because all the textures, sounds, and gusto compensate for it. Perhaps it’s the kind of thing only a band with total power can get away with, but they did.

To your question of why anyone would want to watch an opera on film, there’s no reason to not watch opera on film. It can be interesting. That’s probably why we’re still talking about Tommy 40 years later. It may stir deep trauma or skepticism, but man does it get at you. Pardon me while I pull my monocle out of my champagne, but opera movies don’t have to be strict adaptations and stuffy bonnets while sopranos wail at you. Bergman’s The Magic Flute, Carmen from 1984, or one of the most entertaining music movies ever, Amadeus, all make opera worthwhile on screen. But Tommy takes the rock opera and covers it with stars and spikes in your seat. If it falters as an adaptation, I’m okay with that because the movie braves and boasts its own winning peculiarities. Putting a raw egg in your Newcastle and syringe-filled coffins for the living? I’m confused, but keep showing me more.

I have one last question.

Tommy nearly made It in the top 10 at the box office in 1975, with $34 million in grosses (for musical movie comparison, last year’s Into the Woods came in 23rd with $127 million – damned inflation). Tommy was a strong hit, but movies like The Apple Dumpling Gang, Aloha, Bobby and Rose, and The Other Side of the Mountain made more money. Jaws, waaay more.

Yet, when was the last time anybody talked about Elton John’s big-legged pinball scene in any of those movies?

LC: I agree that you definitely need a suspension of disbelief when watching this film. I am sure that it is possible for Tommy’s afflictions to have been incurred the way they are in the film (hell, soap operas have been capitalizing on that for decades) and that it is best not to over analyze the plot, but part of me can’t, and, as a result, I think this is where the movie fails me where the album does not. It all goes back to the beginning of our discussion regarding shattering perspectives and points of view when the visual is applied for you rather than by you. I certainly love the music of both and find the interpretations and new arrangements exciting, even breathing a crazy new life into the originals. And yes, Elton John as the Pinball Wizard is pure perfection. How did we miss that earlier when discussing the cast? I still recall a Facts of Life episode that had that fact as a thread weaved into the episode’s storyline.

As per your inflation and financial comparison, $34M in 1975 is about $147M today. So the films’ earnings are comparable.

My question to all of you is, could Tommy be made today? Not necessarily re-made, but could this entire project have been made in today’s climate, or was its time perfectly suited for its inception and creation?

BG: Probably not. What compares? American Idiot? That got a heavy-handed music video and a musical, but could that work as a movie? What concept albums could be made into feature-length films? The Suburbs got the online short film treatment from Spike Jonze.

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the live-action movie? MF Doom’s Mm…Food as a superhero cartoon movie? What about a sci-fi space odyssey for the 21st century based on Janelle Monáe’s last two albums? Hey, I’m just spitballing here.

LC: Hahahahaha. Yeah, I think we are getting away from ourselves here. There probably is someone out there who thinks they could do an American Idiot film. They did the play, so the transition can’t be that hard (relatively speaking). But regardless, it doesn’t guarantee success in any way – financial or artistic. Yoshimi maybe, but not the Doom album. A not-really-a-concept concept album revolving around songs about food – methinks no. You mentioned Arcade Fire (The Suburbs). That may be an album of songs inspired by Win growing up in Texas and all that, but I hesitate to see that as a candidate for what we are discussing. If that is criteria enough then pretty much every of Montreal album would qualify.

The last opera-esque album I can think of would be Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime. A concept album but certainly one that told a story (much like Tommy) and not just a collection of loosely connected songs.

As far as Janelle Monáe is concerned, I would love to see that vision come to life! 

HH: Okay, okay, I relent. You’ve both (somewhat) convinced me that Tommy isn’t a total train wreck. Still, by the 90-minute mark, I’m fighting off the urge to throw rotten fruit at Roger Daltrey.  Eventually, even Tommy’s disciples get bored of being deaf, dumb, and blind zombie-clones. They take up arms against Tommy and his handlers to the tune of “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.  The livid kids bash up the glitzy machines and kick Daltrey in the face, which is exactly what I’d wanted to do for the last hour and a half. Enough said.

LC: Well, as Henry said, I think we can all agree that Daltrey is the weakest link in the film. Overall, Tommy isn’t a bad film, and it is probably one of Russell’s better works, but at the end of the day, I still would rather listen to the original album than watch the film, despite the film having Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, and Elton John.

BG: You guys see this thing on tilt, but I still think Tommy’s a special work of weirded-out wizardry. Sure, Tommy’s not everybody’s favorite game of pinball, but it’s definitely among the most memorable of its kind. For a film made in a decade defined by cinematic daring, Tommy stands out for its musical mania.