The Who's 'Tommy' gets a film version directed by Ken Russell - Rolling Stone
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Pete Townshend’s Mixed Blessing

‘Tommy’ gets a film version that’s not exactly up to Townshend’s standards

LOS ANGELES — Just how much can little Tommy take? With each passing version – Who album, Who concerts, all-star stage shows and symphony-orchestrated album – the six-year-old creation of Pete Townshend seems to become more fragile. Now, in a $3-1/2-million movie, Tommy has more than ever been stretched and magnified. To have sent him up against director Ken Russell, whose flairs run the gamut from brilliant to disgusting, hardly seems fair. But Tommy’s pop, Townshend, was there all along, writing new music for the film version and working with Russell on the script. One wonders: Is the latest incarnation what Townshend had in mind all these years?

Maybe yes, maybe no.

“Ken was the master of the situation,” Townshend said, hungrily gulping a hamburger and french fries in his hotel room. “I was just there at his disposal. If he wanted to change any parts of the story he had to work through me, so I was able to temper things. Mostly I was trying not to get in his way.” He smiled at that. “Well, you can’t get in Ken Russell’s way. He is very open for ideas but he gets his own way.”

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Townshend has said that Tommy has his blessing, but it is a slightly mixed one. “It’s not tremendously faithful to the original aim of the original album. Also, it’s tremendously faithful to the original story line, which is peculiar because the story line is quite weak and clichéd.” Townshend seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “Beneath all the colorful imagery and the big visual qualities, the same message does come through. Ken does have a similar sense, a similar spiritual poise, even if it is a bit unbalanced.”

Asked about his reaction to the religious rebellion at the end of the film, he spoke even more slowly, this time on a tangent: “Tommy suddenly realizes [after his disciples have begun to worship him] that everybody has to go their own way. He almost incites the riot at the end. He sees things have gone wrong and he issues hard-and-fast rules – ‘Do this otherwise get out’ – knowing the whole thing is going to crumble but that it’s the best way.”

This interpretation didn’t seem to be very clear in the film, I said. “No,” he laughed through his nose, “because Ken Russell didn’t put it in!”

Townshend’s direct involvement with the film had him writing and recording additional music, repairing basic tracks before the cameras rolled and dubbing tracks. The whole process took a year. “I used to get up at 6:30 in the morning and just hang around the set. There was always something to be done” – like assisting Oliver Reed (the only seriously nonsinging couldn’t-carry-a-tune actor) with his vocalizing. The entire film was dubbed – film synched to earlier recordings – except for the “See Me, Feel Me” part at the end. “You can tell because you can’t hear a word Roger’s singing,” Townshend said. He laughs with his mouth closed – almost a snort but much more pleasant.

Townshend’s conception of Tommy has changed through the years (“I talked about the thing so much with people that I started to learn more about it”) and he’s confident the work is adaptable, able to change “with everyone else’s state of mind.” He recognizes that a great many Who fans are expecting something different from what they’ll get; Ken Russsell’s imagination is hardly ever predictable, even when confined to such a familiar work.

“People who can’t picture Tommy for themselves, can’t draw any conclusions, will be much happier with the film,” Townshend admitted. Not that Columbia Pictures and producer Robert Stigwood will have much to worry about, if a film’s success can be measured by its publicity. Pumped up by a series of premieres and parties, this one could be boffo at the box office.

Now that his Tommy duties are discharged, Townshend can finally get back to the business of the Who. “The group has absolutely got to put itself together and record, and then we’ll go on the road. The last time we worked I wasn’t very happy about it. I didn’t feel very much into it. I mean, at Madison Square Garden last year I felt very much like a fish out of water. I didn’t feel I was being honest playing with old stuff and going through the ritualistic parody of what the Who used to be. I felt … tragic. Roger thinks I took the whole thing too seriously.”

He sighed and shrugged. “I feel good if the material we’re playing is good. Quadrophenia was very bad for the stage even though it was designed to be for the stage.” For a moment it sounded as if he felt too old for all this rock & roll. “No, it isn’t that . . . although I don’t think anybody has yet dealt head-on with allowing rock music to grow up. Jagger won’t – or Bowie, he’s never going to do it. But the Who . . . we won’t fall apart too easily, we could storm the battlements again and again and again.”

And so he casually scotched all those rumors about a Who disintegration into four solo camps. “The reason these solo projects are incredibly necessary is because the Who is a group that has to wait on my creative output. John [Entwistle] loves working on the road and writes a lot of stuff, but because the Who style has evolved around my style, not much of his stuff fits the Who sound. It’s a tremendous need for him to do what he’s doing [currently touring with the group Ox]. When I met him in New York he seemed to be happier and a more complete person than he’d ever been.

“Keith is a completely different kettle; he’s been fairly obsessed with his album, really flung himself into it with a vengeance. I was amazed at the seriousness of it; I always thought Keith was happy to act in a few funny films and get drunk but obviously he’s as frustrated a musician as the rest of us.”

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Daltrey, of course, is already working on another Ken Russell film, Lisztomania, about the composer Franz Liszt, while Keith Moon (along with Tommy’s costar Oliver Reed) will be doing a film with – Sam Peckinpah? Townshend nodded. “They asked me to be in it too, but I don’t want to act,” Townshend said, spreading his arms in a God-help-me gesture. He doesn’t want to direct film either. “I wouldn’t mind doing a similar thing to Tommy, where I write music and let a director direct it.”

He is, however, a film producer. “Me and a couple of friends in London are making a 16mm documentary about Delia DeLeon, a follower of Meher Baba [as is Townshend] since she was 19. We’re considering making a grandscale documentary of other people – all women – who are spiritual leaders, but it’s quite difficult to get them across. Anyway, I’m the producer of the 16mm film,” he said laughing. “That means I’m paying all the bills.”

This story is from the April 24th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.


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