Tommy is greater than any painting, opera, piece of music, ballet or dramatic work that this century has produced.” This is what the hypesters at Columbia Pictures’ publicity mill came up with recently.
“They get carried away, you know,” said Tommy’s director, the mercurial Ken Russell, who merely shrugs his shoulders and adds, “I think what I actually said was that Tommy was the best modern opera since Berg’s Wozzeck.”
This little exercise in blowing up and exploding artistic balloons is only an example of the kind of hysteria and suspense which hovers over the release of Peter Townshend and the Who‘s magnum opus of the Sixties, as translated by Russell for the screen. Still, the movie is expected to have a considerable impact. It brings together, for the first time really, the two main camps of contemporary entertainment, rock music and film, and utilizes the talents of the top figures of each. So the result is a kind of artistic detente, with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed and AnnMargret acting as ambassadors from one nation, and the Who, Elton John and Eric Clapton standing up for the youthful and lusty land of rock & roll. Between them stands Ken Russell, the maverick – and sometimes pariah – of the movies; a film director who began his career churning out thrillers like Billion Dollar Brain and romantic musicals like The Boy Friend, moved through the religious sensationalism of The Devils and finally turned to filming the biographies of the great classical musicians – Mahler, Tchaikovsky and, after Tommy, Franz Liszt.
The project was given its first shove and then supported by Robert Stigwood with Columbia Pictures helping to finance and distribute the film. The British rock manager and mogul managed the Bee Gees and Cream, went on to produce the stage version of Jesus Christ Superstar (and, with Norman Jewison, the film version), and recently brought the stage play Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to New York City.
Tommy cost Columbia and the Stigwood Organisation $3.5 million to produce, with the film slightly overreaching its three-month shooting schedule in England late last year. Promotional expenses, like $25,000 Hollywood publicity parties and $100,000 for premieres in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, will greatly increase the movie’s total price, though Stigwood and his London, New York and Los Angeles associates refuse to divulge just how much they are spending to boost the film. The soundtrack (a double LP with a $9.98 list price) has been acquired by Polydor Records and is expected to immediately earn a gold record.
Ken Russell sees nothing unusual in adding Pete Townshend’s name to his roster of musical infatuations. To him, the work is a “genuine opera” and he sees no material difference between Townshend’s images of pinball wizards and acid queens and the popular images which such composers as J.S. Bach and Kurt Weill worked into their creations. But if Russell has fallen in love with rock, it is evidently a new love. Before Tommy, the only group he recalls liking is King Crimson.
Pete Townshend looks at the collaboration between himself and Russell a bit differently. Speaking from England after the completion of the picture, the Who’s mainstay said, “The chasm between the original record album and the film is a great one. But everything Ken Russell has done with the story and the music has my full blessing.” As for the work’s exact artistic identity, Townshend added, “As a gag, when we were working on it, we started to call it a rock opera, knowing full well it wasn’t a true opera at all. I didn’t need the music critics to tell me it wasn’t an opera – I’ve probably listened to as much straight opera as many of them. But the tag stuck and we realized it was maybe a bit fanciful, but in spite of that we quite liked the idea.”
Russell and Townshend spent a year collaborating on the script, which, incidentally, contains no straight dialog, but consists entirely of songs, images and effects. It was Russell’s chore to give dramatic shape to Townshend’s story of the deaf, dumb and blind Tommy, which had originally sprouted in Townshend’s mind as a consequence of his religious conversion to the philosophy of Meher Baba. The allegory was thus highly personal to Townshend. If the story was confusing or unclear to any part of its original audience, the reason may be that it was not fully fleshed out on the album. To this day, Townshend considers the work a string of singles: some of the numbers, like “Pinball Wizard,” were written before he even had a story of any kind in mind.
The movie version of Tommy tells of a boy born to an English couple, Nora Walker (played by AnnMargret) and her husband, an RAF group-captain who is thought to be dead as the result of a plane crash. So Nora takes up with Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed), who runs Bernie’s Holiday Camp. Tommy grows to idolize “Uncle Frank,” but one night Group-Captain Walker unexpectedly returns home. He discovers Nora in bed with Frank. In the ensuing turmoil Frank smashes Walker in the head with a lamp and kills him. (Here, a reversal from the album’s plot, in which Walker kills Uncle Frank.) In any event, young Tommy witnesses the horrid event and is struck deaf, dumb and blind by the trauma.
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.
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.