What's Deaf, Dumb & Blind and Costs $3.5 Million? 'Tommy!'

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Time passes and the six-year-old Tommy grows into a young man (Roger Daltrey, the Who's lead singer). Frank and Nora try to cure him by taking him to a faith healer (Eric Clapton) without any result. Then Frank takes him to see the bizarre Acid Queen (Tina Turner), who shoots him full of drugs. Next, Tommy is bullied by his cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas) and homosexually raped by his old Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon, the Who's drummer).

Tommy then takes up pinball, this being by all accounts the only sport he can relate to in his nearly insensible condition. He gets so good at the game that he's acclaimed as a champion. A showdown is arranged between him and the Pinball Wizard (Elton John, in three-foot-high platform shoes) – a sort of Henry Aaron of the sport. He beats the wizard and wins a fortune. Mom has a nervous breakdown (and recovers). Nora and Frank then take Tommy to see a medical specialist (Jack Nicholson) who also fails to effect a cure.

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Roger Daltrey

Back home in their new mansion, Tommy stares blankly into a mirror while Nora watches in despair. Finally, she pushes him through the glass and, through some miracle of optics, Tommy lands on the other side with his senses restored.

He now proclaims himself a new messiah and begins to lead a religion which draws huge numbers of followers. His disciples hand out "Tommy Tracts." He becomes world famous. "Tommy Holiday Camps" open all over the world. Nora undergoes a spiritual rebirth while Frank revels in his enormous new wealth. In the end, Tommy's followers rebel and run amok (song: "We're Not Gonna Take It"). They smash all of Tommy's pinball machines and kill Nora and Frank. Tommy is left alone again, presumably with what is known in epistemological circles as a new sense of self. Curtain.

To add continuity and expand the soundtrack to a feature-length 110 minutes (35 longer than the album version), Townshend penned four new songs: "Champagne," "T.V. Studio," "Mother and Son" and "Bernie's Holiday Camp." Stigwood and Polydor have arranged for the major houses in big cities to be equipped with what they call Quintaphonic sound, which Polydor officials describe as "similar to quad with the sound floating all around the room," but with the addition of a fifth speaker behind the screen, from which all vocal tracks issue.

All the songs were recorded in England before the shooting began and were then lip-synched into the film. The performers do their own singing which, for many of the actors, is a departure from the standard Hollywood trick of hiring pros to fill in for stars with poor or untried voices. Jack Nicholson, when asked to appraise his singing, said, "The voice is incomparable." Oliver Reed growls through much of his singing or speaks his lyrics à la Rex Harrison. But AnnMargret has been doing a Las Vegas show for years and the rest of the featured performers – Elton John, Tina Turner, Clapton, Keith Moon and Daltrey – are, of course, veterans of rock.

Russell was particularly impressed by Roger Daltrey, who plays both Tommy and composer Franz Liszt in Russell's latest film biography. "Roger is a natural performer," he said, "and he has a good sense of cinema. He didn't know anything of the technique but he suggested some good cinematic ideas. I was involved in scripting the Liszt film [now in production in England] when we were shooting Tommy. I was overwhelmed at the resemblance between Daltrey and Liszt. I've taken photographs and you can't tell them apart."

Russell is enthusiastic about Tommy. It opens in curious times – with a shaky economy and less money available to be spent on diversions and luxuries. Stigwood, with his (at least) four-million-dollar investment in the project, could be up for a financial bath. But before the film even went into production, he engaged a New York market research group to test the climate for this project. The group, E.J. Wolf Associates, found 55% of their national sample had an "awareness" of the rock opera and a 77% level of "awareness" among 20 to 24-year-olds. They would form "a hardcore of early support." With several million riding on this pinball game, Stigwood hopes they're right.

This story is from the April 10th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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