Movie Information

The Asheville Film Society presents a special AFS benefit screening of Tommy Wednesday, Sept. 1, at 7:30 p.m. at The Carolina Asheville. Hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther. Tickets are $9.75/$8.75 for AFS members.
Genre: Allegorical Rock Opera
Director: Ken Russell
Starring: Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner
Rated: PG

It’s odd for me to realize that I have never actually reviewed Tommy (1975), though I’ve certainly written about it in other capacities. I’m not about to pass up the chance to finally do so—35 years after the fact. But I’m not here offering a review of the film so much as I am offering one on the newly restored version of it being run by the Asheville Film Society—and my reaction to the new print. My initial response is a largely unqualified “Wow!” Nearly everything I’d heard about the new print is true—and I really felt it was 1975 once more while watching it. I’ll go so far as to fall back on the adjective “mind-blowing,” because in many ways that describes it best (yeah, I grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s).

This is the film as I have never seen it—at least so memory suggests. I know it beats the trousers off any of the video versions, and I’ve seen them all, including the RCA CED (remember those?) disc one. But I saw details in the image Friday night I do not remember seeing before. When I took the “Superbit” DVD and did a frame grab and then lightened the image, I could see some of these details, but by then the overall image had suffered in the process. That doesn’t happen with the restored print—the detail is there and the integrity of the overall image remains unchanged.

The sound track is sharp and clear—especially the vocals—in ways I do not recall, and there’s much more audio detail that has been brought out. The sound mix is also different and much fuller. I’m not sure it exactly reproduces the Quintophonic experience, but I suspect that would require bringing in the actual speaker setup that was used back then. A brace of smaller speakers running around the auditorium isn’t exactly the same as two refrigerator-sized Altec Lansing Voice of the Theater monsters attached to the back wall, which was the layout in 1975. In any case, I was not in the least disappointed by the overall quality. Anything that might have been lost in terms of separation—and that’s from a memory of long ago and with a 20-year-old’s hearing—is more than made up for in the clarity of the mix.

One observation I do want to make about the film, though, is that it’s unwise to try to judge it as it goes along—and that’s an obvious temptation in a movie that breaks down into a series of musical-number set pieces. Try to resist that, however, and assess the film as a whole—by what it achieves cumulatively. You’ll still end up with favorite sequences (I’ve heard of screenings of this version where the audience broke into applause after specific scenes), but the impact of the film is the way those scenes link together to produce the entire story and experience.

Anyone who has tried making a film or editing one, can look at Tommy as a kind of textbook on how a film is put together. You can isolate scenes and bits of scenes and see how a sense of a continuous action was achieved by the manipulation of the imagery: Tommy’s (Roger Daltey) crash through the mirror and his plunge into a pool of water (the film is much more allegorical and symbolic than literal) is a perfect example. But I’ll leave you to figure it out, if you’re so inclined. What amazes me is that I know how nearly every shot was done by this point, but that hasn’t dimmed what is to me the essential magic of the movie.

One thing I very much noticed this round is the fact that Ken Russell is very probably the best hand-held camera operator ever. Any time the camera is unanchored to a tripod, you can be pretty sure Russell is himself doing the shooting. Watch the way he makes the camera an actual part of the choreography in the “Acid Queen” sequence, especially in the opening parts. It’s even more impressive when you constrast it with much of the hand-held camera work we see today. The only time he uses anything like the shaky-cam approach is in the sequence where Tommy is picked up in the junkyard—where he’s deliberately evoking TV news footage.

There are a number of places where the camera is hand-held that aren’t apparent. The shot of Cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas) standing over Tommy from Tommy’s point of view was done with Russell lying on his back shooting up at Kevin. You can glimpse Russell operating one of the multiple cameras used for “Pinball Wizard” in a shot past Keith Moon playing the drums. (He also has a cameo in the opening of “Welcome”—seated in a wheelchair sporting the great big bushy beard he had at the time—when the camera zooms back from the little girl’s face.)

But let’s be honest here, if you don’t like rock music in general or the Who in particular, you’re very probably not going to like this movie—though you may admire it for other reasons. It is, on the other hand, quite possible not to like the original Tommy album and like the film. I kind of fall into that camp and I certainly did in 1975. Since I didn’t really know who Ken Russell was at the time and hadn’t cared for the album very much, it’s a film I originally saw only because of Elton John. Things change. And a lot of them changed for me after this movie. Will your senses never be the same, as the original ad campaign said? Well, there’s only one way to find out.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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17 thoughts on “Tommy

  1. Ken Hanke

    Rub it in, why don’t you.

    Hey, I offered to buy your ticket.

  2. Steph

    I hope the DVD out this week will reflect all the changes mentioned in your article.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I hope the DVD out this week will reflect all the changes mentioned in your article.

    Actually,I believe it comes out next week, and I would assume that it’s taken from this restoration. Since I haven’t gone Blu-ray yet, it’ll be a while before I know.

    Tonight’s showing was pretty gratifying. We had, I’d guess, about 130, which made for a good, but not packed house (I admit I would’ve preferred packed). It proved the truth of the saying, “It ain’t a Ken Russell picture until someone walks out,” but in this case it was only one. I had one person afterwards — who I felt completely misread the film — tell me he hadn’t like it at all. Otherwise it got applause at the fade-out and much wilder applause after the credits. I’m told that one person — probably one of the group of enthusiastic teenage boys — yelled, “Best movie ever!” at the ending. (I’m not about to argue.) Nearly everyone going out stopped to thank me for us bringing it in and tell me how much they liked it — and they came in all ages, which I found especially encouraging. I am not disappointed — and I know we made quite a few people happy tonight.

  4. I had one person afterwards—who I felt completely misread the film—tell me he hadn’t like it at all.
    I’d be interested in what his complaints were. (‘This film is totally unbelievable! There’s no way Eric Clapton would’ve been playing a Les Paul in 1975, when everyone knows he switched to Stratocasters in 1970!’)

  5. Ken Hanke

    I’d be interested in what his complaints were

    Primarily that it’s literal-minded, shows no imagination whatever and that it’s obvious that Ken Russell hates England. Oh, and that it bomards the viewer with nothing but ugliness for two hours.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Well! I’ve heard many criticisms of Ken Russell films before, but never that!

    I confess it surprised me, though I would have bet money that this fellow — who, by the way, I actually like — would not like the film. I would have bet on that, though, because he’s someone who has worked as a writer and it’s not a writer’s movie. But I do find the criticism just plain odd. I hardly think that the depictions of “Eyesight to the Blind” or “Acid Queen” qualify as literal-minded — nor would I call them bereft of imagination. Other things may be fairly straightforward, but some of it has to be because it drives the plot.

    In the main, I think it’s a case of someone having a preconceived notion based on a familiarity with the original material and this isn’t it. I’d be more than happy to bat it around with him, but I’m pretty sure he’s set on disliking the film and it would only serve to annoy both of us. In the end, it will still be a perfectly magical experience for me and he will still dislike it. And life will go on.

  7. Steven Adam Renkovish

    Words cannot describe just how much I love this film — and I would have LOVED to have been there to see this special screening. It pains me that I missed it! My friend and I had plans for quite some time to attend, and then, well, LIFE happened…ugh. I can’t even think about it for too long or I get angry…oh, well. I hope that it was everything that you could have hoped for and more. It is clear that this film is near and dear to your heart, Mr. Hanke. I’ll bet the sight of Ann-Margaret bathing in a pool of baked beans on the BIG SCREEN was breathtaking…

    Maybe one day it will return to Asheville…I hope and pray!

  8. Ken Hanke

    I hope that it was everything that you could have hoped for and more.

    Nothing is ever going to quite live up to watching it sitting next to Ken Russell, but this was close.

    Maybe one day it will return to Asheville…I hope and pray!

    Well, one woman came to the theater the day after and asked it be run again because she wanted to take her whole family to see it. Of course, it’s not that easy, but nothing is entirely impossible.

  9. brebro

    Amazon has the BLU-RAY dvd of this down to $11.49 right now, but I see from the complaint reviews on the site that there are NO bonus features? I was going to buy it since I don’t own it yet, but should I wait for a more complete edition?

  10. Ken Hanke

    Amazon has the BLU-RAY dvd of this down to $11.49 right now, but I see from the complaint reviews on the site that there are NO bonus features? I was going to buy it since I don’t own it yet, but should I wait for a more complete edition?

    I’ve got the disc, but I don’t have a blu-ray player yet, so I can’t comment on quality, though it apparently has both the original Quintophonic track and a modernized 5.1 mix. It probably depends on what you want in the way of extra features. If you’re holding out for a KR commentary, I wouldn’t hold my breath. I wish it had the trailer is the only thing I can think of personally, but I don’t really care that much about special features. I rarely even get through all of them (and, yes, that’s even more true if I was involved).

  11. brebro

    According to the reviews on Amazon, the UK disc had the following bonus features:

    UK 2 DVD set from 2004 has HOURS of bonus features…
    1) Director Commentary
    2) insightful interview with Ken Russell by Mark Kermode
    3) more of Ken Russell discussing Tommy
    4) Pete Townshend interview
    5) Roger Daltrey interview
    6) Ann-Margret interview
    7) Trailer, Press Promo materials, a featurette on the Sound…

    and another UK reviewer is not impressed with the sound:

    “So has Sony finally got the proper Quintaphonic mix for this re-mastered blu ray release? Within moments I realised that they had used the same faulty mix as before! It sounds nothing like the proper Quintaphonic mix. It is front centred with a wash of nebulous surround use. It should be complete discrete surround from start to finish. Not only is the surround faulty, even the left to right front soundstage is wrong.”

    But, I suppose, if there is no better US version, I may as well get this one.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I have the UK disc and I’m not that impressed with it or the bonus features. Plus, the UK trailer blows goats. The US trailer is a little quaint in its pretentiousness, but it’s much better.

    I’d have to know who the UK reviewer is to know how much stock I’m putting into that. I have a hunch I know who it is — and if I’m right, he’s about the last person whose word I’d take for anything. Also, I note he doesn’t even seem to realize that there are two soundtracks and he may well not be listening to the actual Quintophonic one.

  13. brebro

    Okay, you have allayed my fears (and in the interim, the price fell another 30¢ to $11.19) so I shall purchase it. Thanks.

  14. Ken Hanke

    And here I was all ready to set up a direct comparison between the Blu-ray and the UK disc. Actually, I might do that anyway out of curiosity. One thing in that review (not by who I feared) is sort of right — about the sound in the US on the theatrical prints not being “right.” Stigwood found a cheaper process and tried to use it everywhere. KR sued him and prevented it in the UK, but not here. However, KR told me that the problem wasn’t the mix, but the fact that the cheaper process clipped the high-range frequencies.

  15. Steven Kroll

    The movie sounded fantastic at the Academy screening in May 2010 and at the Egyptian at the Ken Russell retrospective later last summer AND on the blu-ray that came out in September. I honestly cannot tell what the problem is. It has never sounded better than on this new print. Wouldn’t Ken Russell have said something if it was defective?

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