Director Ken Russell was the perfect choice to direct The Who‘s landmark rock opera Tommy, transforming it into a stream-of-consciousness catalogue of wild performances from Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Tina Turner, Elton John, Keith Moon, Jack Nicholson and others.
Tommy Walker (Daltrey) is a deaf, dumb and blind boy who has been reduced to his near-catatonic state by the trauma of seeing his father murdered by his mother’s lover, scheming holiday camp worker, Frank Hobbs (Reed).
His mother (Ann-Margret) and Frank (now his stepfather) told him to forget everything he had seen and heard, and to never talk about it; but Tommy carried it to the extreme, turned inward, and stopped seeing, hearing or speaking at all.
He suffered much while growing up and finally found happiness in, of all things, playing pinball.
When he became the world champion pinball player it brought his family fame and fortune.
After being spontaneously healed, he began to teach others of his unique perspective on life, eventually becoming a religious cult figure.
Tommy’s liberation, rise and fall as a wizard of the pinball tables and a marketable messiah gave Russell all the scope he could have wished for in striking out at sacred cows.
The cinematic version exposed great yawning cracks in The Who‘s rock opera – Cracks which Ken Russell papered over with panache.
This film (a true opera, with every word being sung) was really the forerunner to the modern-day pop video promo. It also paved the way for today’s 5.1 surround sound, being recorded in ‘quintaphonic’ sound – a revolutionary new concept in sound.
Composer Pete Townshend knew that Tommy was a story always destined for film. During the recording of the original 1969 album, he was continually adding new songs in order to make the abstract story more complete – not only for the eventual listeners but also for his fellow band members who were having difficulty grasping his concepts.
Many of the central themes of Tommy were based (by Townshend) on the teachings of Meher Baba – an Indian mystic whose teachings and ideas Townshend had been introduced to in the 1960s.
Manager Kit Lambert wrote a screenplay of the core story, a copy of which he gave to each of the band in order to help them understand the story more fully.
Filming began on 22 April 1974 at Harefield Grove in Middlesex – where many of the interior scenes were filmed – and concluded eighteen weeks later on Hayling Island and at Southsea.
The original shooting budget was set at £1 million over eight weeks but, with the shoot over-running, the final bill came to £3.5 million.
The shoot itself caused headlines in the national press as a number of ‘incidents’ made their way to the tabloid pages – the ballroom on the pier at Southsea caught fire and was razed to the ground, and Ann-Margret had to have multiple stitches in her arm after cutting herself in the infamous ‘champagne’ scene.
Tommy was Roger Daltrey’s first foray into acting and, although he felt intimidated initially, it was an experience he was keen to repeat.
The world premiere took place on 18 March 1975 at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York. An elaborate first-night party was held in a specially sealed-off section of the New York subway.
The British premiere took place the following week (26 March) at the Leicester Square Theatre in London. The movie set a house box office record with takings of £26,978 for the first week.
Nora Walker Hobbs
The Acid Queen
Reverend A. Simpson
Group Capt Walker
President Black Angels