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The Who’s Tommy: Sorry, Everyone, I Unapologetically Love the Film, and Here’s Why

I don’t just love the movie version of The Who’s Tommy because it is a tripped-out, wacky-ass psycho romp. Which it is. And I do love it for those reasons too. But over the years, my love for it solidified and defined itself, and I think the way it did that was when I compare it to the other versions—especially the Broadway.

I’m a Broadway nerd. Ask anyone. And I’m typically a purist. Most of the time, if there is an original version of a thing, that’s the one I like, though there are certainly exceptions to that rule. Usually, if there is a stage version of a thing, that is the one that comes first, and usually that is the one that I prefer. Not so with Tommy. Tommy, as any Who fan knows, started life as a concept album in 1969, before Ken Russell got his hands on it. It’s the story of a kid whose father goes off to fight in the war. Dad returns home, a terrible trauma happens to Tommy, and “now he is deaf, now he is dumb, now he is blind.” Tommy becomes famous for playing pinball, and then becomes the messiah, because of course he does. When the stage version hit Broadway in 1992, I was excited to see it…and then I saw it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still Tommy (sort of) and it’s still fun, but…

Adult Tommy and his parents

When I start praising the movie, the word I find myself throwing around the most is “dramaturgical”. Say what you want about Ken Russell and his art-house, Fellini-esque style, but the choices he made were all stronger, dramaturgically speaking. The biggest one is the initial trauma that robs young Tommy of his senses. On the concept album and in the Broadway, Tommy’s father comes home from the war and kills his wife’s boyfriend. In the Broadway, they even take it a step further, and there is a trial at which Captain Walker is acquitted for the crime. Not to say such a thing isn’t upsetting for a young kid, but a physiological reaction like your eyes, ears, and ability to speak entirely shutting down? In the film, little Tommy sees Daddy murdered before his eyes. And not only is his mother (Ann-Margret) complicit in convincing him that “he didn’t hear it, he didn’t see it”, but Oliver Reed is the lover, being his glowering, terrifying self. Now THERE’S childhood trauma, boy howdy.

I honestly couldn’t tell you why these choices were made for the Broadway unless it was a case of wanting to get back to the original album—but that doesn’t track all the way through either. It’s almost as if someone who had an attitude against the film went out of their way to make the opposite choice the film did at every intersection, whether it was a good idea or not. Broadway Tommy doesn’t become the messiah. At all. He gets famous for playing pinball, but that’s it. And they had to change a whole bunch of lyrics to songs like “I’m Free” and “Sensation” to reflect this, and the end result was that (to me) it just made Tommy sound more self-aggrandizing than before. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the movie, the abuse triad (the Acid Queen, Cousin Kevin, and Uncle Ernie) are all done to adult Tommy (Roger Daltrey), so Russell got to have more fun with it, beating the crap out of someone who’s meant to be at least 18 (no, you are just not supposed to do the math on how Ann-Margret is old enough to be his mother). On stage, they used a couple of different sizes of wee Tommies, as I recall, while Michael Cerveris flew around on wires like a white-clad Peter Pan and sang adult Tommy, surreal, inner-monologue narration type things. Cerveris is always talented, but for me, it just didn’t work.

Tommy being shut into the Acid Queen's hypodermic iron maiden

And the whole stage interpretation of the Acid Queen was weird. In the film, we’ve got Her Royal Highness Tina Turner, right? Giving Tommy mind-expanding drugs as well as sexual awakening, ecstasy, and terror all at the same time, going through about seven fabulous outfits during the course of one number? And this is after Mom took him to the faith healer (Eric Clapton), where the cultists worship Marilyn Monroe and wash down pills with Jack Daniels? On stage, they are sort of blended together. When the guy sings “you talk about your woman, I wish you could see mine”, it is a setup for the Acid Queen, because she is a hooker, and he is her pimp. He’s not a faith healer at all, and she’s not the Acid Queen because she gives you drugs—she is on drugs. In the middle of the song, she needs a fix and has to be shot up by a character known as the Harmonica Player (I played him in college). Hardly a religious experience of any kind…and remember, this is wee Tommy she is writhing around. It’s just awkward. Great song, great performances from all the actresses who got to do it, but awkward storytelling.

One of the things the Broadway does is build on the vocal arrangements of things. Look, I am all about the harms as much as the next singer. I love me some good harmonies. But a lot of these feel like they are there for no real reason. Lines are repeated, whole refrains and even songs, for no apparent reason other than to add another harmonic line. Which sounds pretty and all, but gets tedious after a while. Do we need another reprise of this? Do they think we forgot? Also, vocal harmonies aren’t enough. Once you listen to the movie soundtrack, if you go back and listen to the concept album, the arrangements feel like half of something. It feels like the Broadway was trying to ape a lot of those arrangements musically, with unnecessary harmonies taking up the slack, and it doesn’t work.

Elton John as the Pinball Champ, pointing at Tommy

“Pinball Wizard” is probably the most famous song from the album, and it’s pretty well known that Pete Townshend has hated it since he wrote it. He picked pinball as his metaphor for “something ridiculous that a person can get famous for”, and he doesn’t like the song, and that’s enough to explain his decades of Tommy ‘tude…especially when you consider that the version that rocks the house down in the film is the piano-based arrangement covered by Sir Elton John. It is a kick-ass sequence in the film, complete with a chance for The Who to play themselves as Elton’s backup band, doing their trademark smashing of their instruments, dressed in suits printed to look like money. Elton plays the reigning pinball champ, and we get to watch Tommy defeat him. On stage, there is no showdown, and there is no champ. The song is sung about Tommy (no change there) by a couple of “local lads”…Cousin Kevin, and a couple of his friends. Serviceable? Sure. A weaker choice? Definitely.

Mrs Walker stands up against a mirror that shows Tommy's reflection

Ann-Margret as Mrs. Walker was working the “hot mom” thing long before Angelina Jolie made it an official Hollywood archetype (thank you, Angelina). “Champagne” is gratuitous, added for her, an excuse to watch her writhe around in goop and straddle a great big phallic pillow, and get herself an Oscar nomination for her trouble. Would this have worked on stage, with a different actress? I would have loved to have seen someone given the chance to try (Alice Ripley, for example, who played Mrs. Walker in LA in 2008), especially since stage-Mrs Walker isn’t much of a character. As it was, the song doesn’t exist anywhere except the film. What does exist in the Broadway version is a duet between Captain and Mrs. Walker called “I Believe My Own Eyes”. It’s very pretty harmonically and all, and the main statement of the song is “we’re done, let’s give up on our traumatised child.” Of course, in the next scene, the mirror gets smashed and Tommy gets his senses back, so never mind. But the song makes me furious while it’s happening.

So, smashy smashy, Tommy gets his senses and his memories back all at once. Another scene added for the film is this little exchange between Tommy and his mother where she welcomes him back to the world of sight and sound. He turns that back on her, showing her that the wealth that she’s gained through his pinball fame is empty and pointless (I think she’s known that all along on some level, hence her self-medication with the drinking). He pulls off her jewelry and her press-on nails (ouch) and gives her the same symbolic baptism he has just given himself…this film is big on the notion that if you go swimming, you are cleansed and everything is okay.

Seriously though, there’s an idealism to messiah-Tommy that needs to be there, or he’s just another rock star with an over-inflated ego. This is a kid who suffered terrible trauma and abuse, and somehow found his way out. He’s able to forgive his parents (his stepfather being the primary father he remembers), and he genuinely wants to take this enlightenment he’s learned, and pass it on to others, and help people. He’s going to do this the only way he knows how, which is to have his followers take the same path he took—cut off your senses, play pinball, and wait for your come-to-jesus. And of course, people are really into it…until they’re not.

Sally Simpson puts on makeup at her dressing table, surrounded by posters of Tommy

One of the people who is really into it is Sally Simpson. I discovered Tommy when I was a teenager, and little Sally really spoke to my teenage fangirl soul on a deep and personal level. “She knew from the start, deep down in her heart, she and Tommy were worlds apart.” Broadway Sally was older, a groupie who Tommy picks up out of the crowd when security starts roughing her up. He brings her home, and is kind to her. That’s great for Broadway Sally. But movie Sally and Teenage Me were raging, because in the film (and on the album, for that matter) young Sally gets lost and injured in the crowd. She winds up with a huge facial scar and a sad, pedestrian life, and for all his preaching about love and togetherness, Tommy never even knew that she was there.

When messiah-Tommy’s followers realise that playing pinball with a blindfold is humiliating and ridiculous (to say nothing of the money they have spent on the apparati and the Tommy t-shirts and everything else), of course they turn on Tommy, as followers of messiahs are wont to do. There’s a big riot, they burn everything down, and it’s a big mess. For all their faults, Tommy’s parents’ last stand is defending him. Roger Daltrey, emoting his blessed head off, lays them together, holding hands, with one last “see me, feel me”. He leaves the wreckage of his life behind him, goes swimming again (like I said, this film is big with that), and there’s some truly beautiful cinematography going on as we follow Tommy alone now, “listening to you, I get the music”.

Silhouette of Tommy on a mountaintop, raising his arms against the sun

I always imagine Ken Russell thinking to himself, “where ELSE can I have Roger Daltrey run barefoot in the name of symbolism?” And the last shot of the film, I don’t know how they got it in 1975, except it’s Ken Russell and even the sun does what he tells it to—Tommy is on a mountaintop, slowly raising his arms, and it looks like he is somehow causing the sun to rise. It’s epic, it’s glorious…meanwhile, on Broadway, Tommy tells all his pinball fans he doesn’t feel like doing this anymore, and he goes home with Sally Simpson and his parents, presumably to lead a regular life, getting excitement at each others’ feet for no particular reason.

Look, I know there are people who love it. And I heard there are plans for a revival in the works, whenever Broadway comes back. I hope Townshend has mellowed out a bit on his Tommy-‘tude, and can maybe find a happy medium between the film, the stage, and the album. Because I truly think all the problems I had with the original stage run are fixable. You don’t need Ken Russell and his wacky-ass 1975 art house special effects to make Tommy work. You need strong dramaturgic choices, and you need to get over yourself about this piece of art you made and dislike (or you just need to give up the rights to someone who actually likes it, and leave it alone). You birthed the kid, maybe it’s time to give it to someone else to raise…or you need to learn to love it for what it is, the way so many others do. Listening to you…

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Written by Cat Smith

Cat Smith is the reigning Miss Nerdstiles, having inherited the crown from absolutely no one, because she made it up. She is an actor, a musician, a cosplayer since before they had a word for it, and a general nuisance (General Nuisance *salute*). She and her ukulele have charmed the collective socks off of LI Who and LI Geek, ReGeneration Who, WHOlanta, Potterverse, Coal Hill Con, Time Eddy, MISTI-Con, Hudson Valley Comic Con, Wicked Faire, SqueeCon, The Way Station, and The Pandorica Restaurant . She has written for "Outside In" and "Why I Geek" (among others), and you can find her music on bandcamp at https://missnerdstiles.bandcamp.com/album/who-riginals. Consider supporting her continuing adventures by becoming a patron at patreon.com/missnerdstiles

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