Tommy (1975 film)

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Tommy film poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Ken Russell
Produced byKen Russell
Robert Stigwood
Screenplay byKen Russell
Based on Tommy
by The Who
Music by The Who
Edited by Stuart Baird
Robert Stigwood Organization Ltd.
Hemdale Film Corporation
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date
  • 19 March 1975 (1975-03-19)(United States) [1]
  • 26 March 1975 (1975-03-26)(United Kingdom)
Running time
108 minutes [2]
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$3 million [3]
Box office$34.3 million [4]

Tommy is a 1975 British satirical operetta fantasy drama film written and directed by Ken Russell and based upon The Who's 1969 rock opera album Tommy about a "psychosomatically deaf, mute, and blind" boy who becomes a pinball champion and religious leader. [5] The film featured a star-studded ensemble cast, including the band members themselves (most notably, lead singer Roger Daltrey, who plays the title role), Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Elton John, and Jack Nicholson.


An independent production by Russell and Robert Stigwood, Tommy was released by Columbia Pictures in the US on 19 March 1975 while in the UK it was released on 26 March 1975. Ann-Margret received a Golden Globe Award for her performance and was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Pete Townshend was also nominated for an Oscar for his work in scoring and adapting the music for the film. The film was shown at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition. [6] In 1975, the film won the award for Rock Movie of the Year in the First Annual Rock Music Awards. [7]


In the prologue, set in 1945, a montage displays the honeymoon of Captain Walker and his wife, Nora ("Prologue - 1945"). After his leave ends, Walker goes off to fight in World War II as a bomber pilot, but is shot down during a mission. "Captain Walker" is listed as missing in action and is presumed dead, although—unknown to his family—the badly burnt Walker is in fact alive. Back in England, Nora goes into labour and gives birth to a son, Tommy, on V-E Day (“Captain Walker/It’s a Boy”). Five years later, Nora has begun a new relationship with Frank, a worker she and Tommy meet on vacation. Tommy looks up to his "Uncle" Frank who expresses his desires to run his own holiday camp someday ("Bernie's Holiday Camp"). In the 1950s, Nora and Frank dream of their future ("1951 / What About the Boy?"), but, late that evening, encounter the returning Captain Walker. He surprises Frank and Nora in bed, leading to a struggle where Frank kills the Captain (In the original album synopsis the Captain will kill Frank ). [8] The heat of the moment panics Tommy into a psychedelia-like "Amazing Journey", where he outwardly appears "deaf, dumb, and blind".

As time passes, Nora and Frank make several fruitless attempts to bring the now older Tommy out of his state ("Eyesight to the Blind" / "The Acid Queen") and keep him in the company of some questionable babysitters ("Cousin Kevin" / "Fiddle About"). They become more and more lethargic at the lack of effect and leave Tommy standing at the mirror one night, allowing him to wander off. He follows a vision of himself to a junkyard pinball machine. Tommy is recognized by Frank and the media as a pinball prodigy ("Extra, Extra, Extra"), which is made even more impressive with his catatonic state. During a championship game, Tommy faces the "Pinball Wizard" with The Who as the backing band. Nora watches her son's televised victory and celebrates his (and her) success and luxury, but finds she can't fully enjoy it due to the extremity of Tommy's condition ("Champagne").

Frank finds a specialist for Tommy (“There’s a Doctor”) who comes to the conclusion that Tommy's state is triggered emotionally rather than physically. The only hope, he says, is to continue putting Tommy in front of his reflection ("Go to the Mirror!"). Nora's growing frustration prompts her to throw Tommy through the mirror (“Smash the Mirror!”) causing him to snap to full consciousness and run away momentarily ("I'm Free"). Tommy reveals that his experiences have transformed him and decides that he wants to transform the world ("Mother and Son" / "Miracle Cure").

Tommy goes on lecture tours that resemble glam-rock gospel shows and spreads a message of enlightenment by hang glider, gaining friends and followers everywhere he goes ("Sally Simpson" / "Sensation"). Tommy and a more enlightened and elated Nora and Frank welcome converts to their house, which quickly becomes too crowded to accommodate everyone. Tommy opens an extension for his religious campus ("Welcome" / "Tommy's Holiday Camp").

The converts, confused about Tommy's odd practices and his family's commercial exploitation of the compound, wrathfully demand Tommy teach them something useful. Tommy does so, deliberately deafening, muting, and blinding everyone, only to inadvertently invoke a riot. The followers kill Nora and Frank and destroy the camp in a fire ("We're Not Gonna Take It"). Tommy finds his parents in the debris and mourns before escaping into the mountains from the beginning of the film. He ascends the same peak where his parents celebrated their honeymoon, celebrating the rising sun ("Listening to You"). [9]




Tommy was written in 1968 and recorded by the Who in 1969. [10] Three years later a version of the opera was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. The two albums sold ten million copies between them. [11]

Film rights were bought by Robert Stigwood who secured financing from Columbia. Beryl Vertue of the Stigwood Organisation was executive producer. Stigwood also arranged for Ken Russell to direct. [12]

Russell admitted he did not like the music - he disliked rock music in general - but he loved the theme of the film, being about a messiah. [13]

According to Russell, several scripts had been written by the time he came on the project. He later wrote "some were well written, some were not, but they all had one thing in common - a big negative. They were not about a deaf dumb and blind boy's spiritual journey from darkness to light." [14]

Russell did up his own treatment of the story as he saw it. He said "This in no way deviated from his [Townshend's] original but plugged in the gaps where I found the story obscure or just non existent." [14] Russell said Townshend liked most of his suggestions and wrote new material.

Russell and Townshend worked on the film together for a year. [3] [15] Russell had been working on a script called The Angels, which was to star Mia Farrow about a pop star called Poppy Day who becomes a messianic figure, and reworked some of that script's sequences for Tommy. He also used scenes from another unfilmed script of his, Music Music Music about a composer who writes music for TV commercials (this turned into what became known as the "baked beans" scene with Ann Margret). [16] Russell made several changes to the story:


It was announced that Roger Daltrey would play Tommy and Keith Moon would play Uncle Ernie. Various rumours spread over who would play other cast members with names such as David Bowie, Elton John, Barbra Streisand and Mick Jagger being mentioned. [17]

Daltrey was cast at Russell's specific request, over the wishes of Daltrey's own management. [18]

In December it was announced Ann-Margret would play Tommy's mother. [19] Ann-Margret was cast because, according to Russell, "I needed a superb singer." [3]

Jagger was reportedly offered the role of The Acid Queen but insisted on singing three of his own songs so the role was given to Tina Turner. [20]

Jack Nicholson agreed to play a small role because "Russell's films intrigue me, some I like very much, some I don't like at all, and I want to find out what makes them tick." [21]

Russell says Pete Townshend wanted Tiny Tim to play Pinball Wizard but Stigwood overruled him. [22] Elton John initially turned down the role of the Pinball Wizard and among those considered to replace him was David Essex, who recorded a test audio version of the "Pinball Wizard" song. However, producer Robert Stigwood held out until John agreed to take the part, reportedly on condition that he could keep the gigantic Dr. Martens boots he wore in the scene. [23]


Filming started April 1974 and took place over twelve weeks. In his commentary for the 2004 DVD release of the film, Ken Russell stated that the opening and closing outdoor scenes were shot in the Borrowdale valley of the English Lake District, near his own home, the same area that he had used to double for rural Austria and Bohemia in his earlier film Mahler , in which Robert Powell had starred.

Much of the film was shot on locations around Portsmouth, including the scene near the end of the film featuring the giant 'pinballs', which were, in fact, obsolete buoys found in a British Navy yard, which were simply sprayed silver and filmed in situ. The Bernie's Holiday Camp ballroom sequence was shot inside the Gaiety Theatre on South Parade Pier. Exterior shots were filmed at Hilsea Lido [24] (Russell had worked there before making The Boy Friend). [25] The Sally Simpson interior sequence was filmed in the Wesley Hall in Fratton Road, Portsmouth. The exterior intro sequence to the scene, however, shows Sally Simpson buying a badge and entering South Parade Pier.

On 11 June 1974, the pier caught fire and was badly damaged while the production was filming there. According to Russell, the fire started during the filming of the scene of Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed dancing together during the "Bernie's Holiday Camp" sequence; smoke from the fire can be seen drifting in front of the camera in several shots. Russell also used a brief exterior shot of the building fully ablaze during the scenes of the destruction of Tommy's Holiday Camp by his disillusioned followers. [23] [26]

The Pinball Wizard sequence was shot at the Kings Theatre in Southsea and the two pinball machines used were a 1965 Kings & Queens by Gottlieb—used by Roger Daltrey—and a Gottlieb Buckaroo also from 1965, used by Elton John. The machines' scoring displays were modified from their originals for the scene, to accommodate for large scores. [27] Others on Portsdown Hill, which overlooks Portsmouth and local churches were used. All Saints in Commercial Road was used for the Sally Simpson wedding scene, whilst the meeting in the same sequence was filmed at the Wesley Hall in Fratton Road. The Eyesight to the Blind sequence was filmed at St Andrews Church in Henderson Road in Southsea. The other church featured was Warblington Church near Havant in Hampshire.

The famous scene in which Ann-Margret's character hallucinates that she is cavorting in detergent foam, baked beans, and chocolate reportedly took three days to shoot. According to Russell, the detergent and baked bean sequences were "revenge" parodies of real-life TV advertisements he had directed early in his career, although the baked bean sequence also references one of the cover photos and a parody radio ad from The Who's 1967 album The Who Sell Out . Russell also recalled that Ann-Margret's husband, Roger Smith, strongly objected to the scene in which she slithers around in melted chocolate.

During the filming, Ann-Margret accidentally struck her hand on the broken glass of the TV screen, causing a severe laceration, and Russell had to take her to hospital to have the wound stitched, although she was back on set the next day. [23] The film also includes a scene in which Mrs. Walker watches a parodic TV advertisement for the fictional product "Rex Baked Beans"; the costumes in this segment were originally made for the lavish masked ball sequence in Richard Lester's version of The Three Musketeers, and the dress worn by the Queen in the Rex ad is that worn by Geraldine Chaplin in the earlier film. [28]

Russell recalled that Townshend initially baulked at Russell's wish to have The Who performing behind Elton in the sequence (they did not perform the audio here), and also objected to wearing the pound-note suits, which were in fact stitched together from novelty pound-note tea-towels. [23] On The Who's involvement with the film, members Daltrey played the title character; Moon played, in essence, a dual role as both Uncle Ernie and as himself along with Entwistle and Townshend miming on their respective instruments in the "Eyesight to the Blind" and "Pinball Wizard" segments. About his role as the Specialist, Jack Nicholson stated: "In my whole career there was only one time when a director said to me, 'OK, come right down the pike and just look beautiful, Jack.' That was Ken Russell on Tommy." [29]

Filming finished in September 1974. Russell then edited the film and supervised the recording of the soundtrack. [30] When it was done Russell said "I think it's probably the one thing I've ever done that satisfies me aesthetically. The fact that it's a rock opera as well is a tremendous bonus because people will come see it." [13]


Box office

The film was a box office hit. By August 1975, it had earned US$27 million (equivalent to $128 million in 2019) in the US alone. [31]

The film made over US$1 million (equivalent to $5 million in 2019) in France. [32]

Russell later called it "the most commercial film I've ever made". [22]

Critical response

The film currently holds a 70% approval rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 33 reviews, with an average grade of 6.75 out of 10. The critical consensus reads:

"Tommy is as erratic and propulsive as a game of pinball, incorporating The Who's songs into an irreverent odyssey with the visual imagination that only director Ken Russell can conjure." [33]

Vincent Canby of The New York Times declared:

"It may be the most overproduced movie ever made, but there is wit and reason for this. It is the last word in pop art ... Everything, including the sound level, is too much. But even this works in an odd way. The victim of the movie is as much the person sitting in the audience as it is Tommy." [34]

Variety called the film "spectacular in every way":

"The production is magnificent, the multitrack sound (tradenamed Quintophonic) terrific, the casting and acting great, and the name cameos most showmanly." [35]

Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, and praised Ann-Margret as being "simply great as Tommy's mother". He called the pinball tournament sequence: "...the movie's best single scene: a pulsating, orgiastic turn-on edited with the precision of a machine gun burst." [36] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune awarded two-and-a-half stars out of four, calling the film: "...a disappointing, slap-dash pictorialization of the fine music of The Who [with] no cinematic flow." [37]

Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called the film: " overwhelming, thunderous, almost continuously astonishing achievement, coherent and consistent from first frames to last." [38] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote that the music of the original album: "...had a certain obscure dignity and integrity, and these qualities don't withstand the Russell treatment. On record' Tommy' seemed a bit mysterious. On screen it's just banal." [39] Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote: "...even at its most lacklustre and tasteless junctures, Tommy is never boring, and always full of energy; and given the very loose framework and imprecise plot that Russell has to work with, this is no small achievement." [40]

Perry Seibert of AllMovie gave the film four stars out of five and described it as: "...continuously watchable, but the film version of Tommy sacrifices the fragile emotional core of Pete Townshend's work for grandiose spectacle." [41]

Rapper and Wu-Tang Clan member Ol' Dirty Bastard said of the film:

"Tommy was a great film. A blind, deaf kid who could play pinball. What a very great idea." [42]

Awards and nominations

Academy Awards Best Actress Ann-Margret Nominated
Best Original Song Score or Adaptation Score Pete Townshend Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy TommyNominated
Best Actress – Motion Picture Comedy or Musical Ann-MargretWon
Most Promising Newcomer Roger Daltrey Nominated

Quintaphonic Sound

The original release of Tommy used a sound system devised by sound engineer John Mosely called "Quintaphonic Sound". [43] At the time that the film was in production, various "Quadraphonic" (four speaker) sound systems were being marketed to the domestic HiFi market. Some of these were so-called matrix systems that combined the four original channels into two, which could be recorded on or transmitted by, existing two-channel stereo systems such as LP records or FM radio. John Mosely used one of these systems (QS Regular Matrix from Sansui) to record front left, front right, back left, and back right channels on the left and right tracks of a four-track magnetic striped print of the Cinemascope type. A discrete centre channel was also recorded on the centre track of the print. The fourth (surround) track on the striped print was left unused. In addition, John Mosely used dbx noise reduction on the magnetic tracks.

Unlike the usual multiple small surround speakers used in cinemas, the Quintaphonic system specified just two rear speakers, but of the same type as those used at the front.

One problem that arose was that by the 1970s the four-track magnetic sound system was largely moribund. Only a few theatres were equipped with the necessary magnetic playback heads and other equipment; of those that did in many cases, it was not in working order. Thus, in addition to installing the extra electronics and rear speakers, John Mosely and his team had to repair and align the basic magnetic playback equipment. Each theatre that showed Tommy using the Quintaphonic system accordingly had to be specially prepared to take the film. In this respect there is a similarity between Tommy and Walt Disney's Fantasia , for which a special sound system (Fantasound) had been devised and required each theatre that showed it in the original release to be specially prepared. Also, like Fantasound, Quintaphonic Sound was never used again (five-channel stereo, in the form of 5.1 surround sound, eventually made a comeback).

Tommy was later released with mono, conventional four-track magnetic and Dolby Stereo soundtracks.

Changes from the album

Unlike other filmed rock operas (such as that of Pink Floyd's The Wall ), the album is never dubbed over the film; the different actors – including Nicholson and Reed, neither of whom were known for their singing ability (Reed's character's songs were cut from Oliver! , and Nicholson's in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever appeared only in the now-lost roadshow version) – perform the songs in character instead of The Who, with the exception of Daltrey as Tommy and where Townshend sings narration in place of recitative.

Because of this, all the songs were rerecorded and the song order is shuffled around considerably; this and the addition of several new songs and links creates a more balanced structure of alternating short and long sequences. A large number of songs have new lyrics and instrumentation, and another notable feature is that many of the songs and pieces used on the film soundtrack are alternate versions or mixes from the versions on the soundtrack album.

Differences between 1969 and 1975 versions


Sales chart performance

1975Australia (Kent Music Report) [44] 6
1975 Billboard Pop Albums2
1975UK Chart Albums21

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