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Release Date(s)1975 (September 7, 2010)
Studio(s)Columbia (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Even by the already trippy standards of the rock musical, Ken Russell’s film of The Who’s Tommy stands tall as one of the most peculiar things ever captured on celluloid. After all, this is a movie whose highlights include Elton John in cartoonishly oversized boots playing a piano-pinball machine hybrid, a spasmodically twitching Tina Turner sealing Roger Daltrey into a gleaming silver sarcophagus decked out with multiple hypodermic needles, and Ann-Margret writhing around in a tidal wave of baked beans. If you can make it through this movie without saying “What the hell?” at least once, you might want to consider cutting back on your use of recreational pharmaceuticals.
Tommy was primarily the brainchild of Pete Townshend, who turns up in the film periodically as himself, playing, and sometimes destroying, guitar. But while the music and story are still Townshend’s, the imagery is pure, unadulterated Ken Russell madness.
Roger Daltrey plays the title character, the deaf, dumb and blind kid who grows up amidst horrific abuse to become a messianic pinball wizard. Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed play Tommy’s mother and her lover, whose murder of Tommy’s long-lost father results in Tommy’s sudden afflictions. The leads are memorable but the enduring strength of Tommy comes from the stellar line-up of “Guest Artists”, including Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Arthur Brown, Keith Moon (genuinely funny and creepy as Uncle Ernie), and Jack Nicholson, singing as best he can as The Specialist.
The first time I saw Tommy, I absolutely hated it and it’s not hard to see why. At the time, I wasn’t much of a fan of The Who and wasn’t terribly familiar with their music. Tommy is a pretty terrible introduction to The Who. The songs are performed by the cast, which is phenomenal when Elton John and Tina Turner are on screen, less satisfactory when Oliver Reed is belting out a tune.
Making my initial reaction even worse, I had not yet developed an appreciation for Ken Russell’s unique visual aesthetic. Russell is an extremely polarizing filmmaker. You either lock into his wavelength or you reject it completely. If you hate it, within the first twenty minutes of Tommy’s sensory overload, you’ll be screaming, “Make it stop!” I have since grown to admire and even love Russell’s bizarre blend of color, religious and sexual iconography. From that perspective, Tommy is mesmerizing, often very funny and unquestionably unlike any other movie out there. I still think it peters out at the end... after everything we’ve seen and heard, ending the movie with Daltrey running barefoot up a mountain seems fairly anticlimactic... but there are moments along the way that you won’t soon forget.
The big news for Tommy’s Blu-ray debut is the restoration of the original Quintaphonic 5.0 soundtrack. An insert with notes written by Robert Heiber details the meticulous work that went into the restoration and the results are phenomenal. A DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix has also been included and there are indeed subtle differences between the two, particularly the more aggressive use of rear channels in the Quintaphonic version. Either way, the disc sounds absolutely amazing. Video quality is also extremely good. The 1080p image reveals a bit too much detail at times. Some makeup is a little dodgy in close-ups and I don’t know that anybody ever needed the ability to count the beans dripping off Ann-Margret’s flesh. But the disc is vibrant and colorful without looking like a digitally processed nightmare. High marks all around for the technical aspects.
Unfortunately, Sony has skimped on the extras, with only movieIQ and BD-Live features like build-your-own-playlist and movie facts. It’s better than nothing, I guess, unless your player doesn’t support such things, in which case it’s exactly nothing. An Australian company called Umbrella Entertainment released a two-disc DVD of Tommy a few years back featuring a Ken Russell commentary, extensive interviews and more, none of which are here. It’s a pity since it’s a movie that cries out for such treatment.
Frustrating lack of extras aside, Tommy on Blu-ray is a top-notch example of how to present a vintage rock musical in high-def. The movie is definitely not for everyone but fans will love cranking up the volume and immersing themselves in Ken Russell’s utterly bizarre world... at least until an import version comes along that delivers both the technical punch and the extras we crave.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke