The Who’s 1969 double-album Tommy is generally considered the first ‘rock opera’ (cases could, of course, be made for S.F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things or Village Green Preservation Society by the Kinks). The story of a deaf, dumb and blind messianic pinball wizard was ripe for the cinematic picking. When the time came to conduct this bit of cinematic alchemy, Pete Townshend & Co. turned to the maverick director Ken Russell. The result, upon reconsideration 45 years later, is far better than you may have thought. Here’s the inside dope on the making of Tommy, the movie.
The Seventies, as a decade, were a haze of confusion, paranoia and decadence. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood would slouch its way toward the rubble of the post-hippie pipedream to merge with rock & roll. Audiences flocked to see a stoned Mick Jagger share a bathtub with Keith Richards’ girlfriend in Nic Roeg’s Performance while Universal Pictures flushed $13 million down the toilet with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the cringey, cocaine-fueled musical of the Beatles’ album starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. Rising from this (teenage) wasteland were the bombastic, Wagnerian sounds of The Who along with the surrealist, sacred and profane visions of Ken Russell’s films. Like two star-crossed lovers of Shakespearian prose, The Who and Ken Russell consummated their creative marriage with the 1975 film, Tommy.
The idea of adapting The Who’s 1969 album about Tommy Walker, a boy traumatized by the death of his father and becoming a deaf, dumb and blind pinball champion of messianic proportions was the last thing on Pete Townshend’s mind—and, arguably, on the minds of anyone who loved Tommy, the album. However, by 1970, Tommy had already been adapted for a Canadian ballet, prompting bassist John Entwistle to sarcastically ask, “What’s next? A marionette puppet show called ‘Dummy’?!”
Like two star-crossed lovers of Shakespearian prose, The Who and Ken Russell consummated their creative marriage with the 1975 film, Tommy.
After Tommy’s songs became staples for The Who’s sets at Woodstock, the Isle of Wight Festival, and a series of legendary shows at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, Townshend raised the musical watermark with songs stockpiled from his aborted Lifehouse project. He had planned to adapt these songs into a film for Universal Pictures but they, ultimately, became the Who’s Next album.
The Who’s dazzling performance of “See Me, Feel Me” at Woodstock in 1969:
Walking along Waldour Street in London’s Soho district with a tape recorder, hoping to capture the sounds of drug deals and rent boys to be used on The Who’s 1973 album, Quadrophenia, Townshend overheard his co-manager, Chris Stamp (brother of actor Terence Stamp), who had left a meeting with Hammer Films, the studio behind Dracula and Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, talking about Tommy being made into a movie. Kit Lambert, Stamp’s management partner and producer of the Tommy album, was the holdout as he was expecting to be fully compensated for his involvement in the script while struggling with a costly heroin addiction.
…prompting bassist John Entwistle to sarcastically ask, “What’s next? A marionette puppet show called ‘Dummy’?!”
Days later, the idea of Tommy being made by Britain’s premier horror film company was removed from the table as Robert Stigwood, manager of the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton, agreed to finance the film. He had just hit paydirt as producer of the film version to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. The question that remained was who would have the audacity to direct the picture?
Hailed by Fellini as his British counterpart, Ken Russell was riding the waves of adulation and damnation from critics and audiences alike with his absurdist, gothic and Freudian films: from the X-rated sacrilege in The Devils with the infamous “rape of Christ” sequence cut by Warner Brothers; Savage Messiah, with Helen Mirren as an au natural suffragette; and the light, yet severely butchered, adaptation of Sandy Wilson’s musical, The Boy Friend, starring supermodel Twiggy.
Savage Messiah, director Ken Russell, trailer:
Townshend invited Russell and his agent to The Who’s performance of Tommy with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Rainbow Theatre. In his 1990 autobiography, Altered States, Russell said that he was unimpressed with the live show. It did, however, remind him of when he saw Reverend Billy Graham years earlier “just up the road in Harringay Arena. Tommy and Billy have a lot in common in that they both seem to encourage religious fanaticism verging on hysteria.” Hysteria being Russell’s specialty, he agreed to helm Tommy after he and Townshend collaborated on rewrites to the script that left Kit Lambert’s name out of the writing credits.
Casting and recording the vocal tracks to Tommy was as much of a spectacle as the film itself. Ann-Margaret was an easy choice as Tommy’s mother, given her background working alongside Elvis in Viva Las Vegas.
Ann-Margaret dancing frenetically in Viva Las Vegas:
Plus, she laid down all her vocal tracks in eleven hours at Townshend’s home recording studio. However, after Oliver Reed – Ken Russell’s regular leading man – signed on to play Tommy’s stepfather, he spent a week with Townshend, who was armed with bottles of Remi Martin. This binge ended with Reed’s vocal tracks having to be heavily edited in post-production. On the film set itself, Reed’s presence was a powder keg; the match that lit the fuse to that keg was Keith Moon, The Who’s drummer. Moon, as it turned out, had originally wanted to play Tommy’s stepfather in the film before Russell hired Reed.
Cut to: The whirling sounds of a helicopter disrupting the tranquility of a countryside estate in Surrey, England—the stately residence of Oliver Reed. As Reed’s horses were neighing with fright, he ran to the rooftop of his 16th-century home and fired his twelve-gauge shotgun at the helicopter before it touched down on his property. Keith Moon, his personal assistant and roadie, Peter Butler, and a Swedish blonde exited the chopper with hesitation. As Butler remembers, “We were there with some trepidation, especially me. I’ve got Moonie and Oliver Reed and these two could go together and explode, but they didn’t and it was like a match made in heaven.”
Despite sharing only one scene in the Tommy film—the one where Reed goes into Tommy’s bedroom to find Moon, playing the pedophilic Uncle Ernie, “fiddling about” with his nephew, Reed and Moon were joined at the hip off the set.
Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie fiddling about with Tommy:
To prevent the cast and crew from being sucked into the vortex of the duo’s hell-raising, Reed and Moon were booked into a separate hotel. When Moon and Reed were not enjoying the company of Swedish models lined up in the hotel room like the bottles of booze they consumed, they played drinking games with a tortoise Ollie had given to Keith. The tortoise also served double duty as an ashtray and a codpiece when they were wandering naked around the hotel lobby; anything to cover Reed’s legendary, tattooed member.
While Reed and Moon were raising hell, a fire nearly engulfed the set. Russell recalls that during the “Bernie’s Holiday Camp” sequence, when Oliver Reed and Ann-Margret dance slowly under a mirror ball, a fire broke out in the dance hall, causing cast, crew and extras to flee the set. “We guessed it was nothing more than a smoldering electric cable. A sharp splintering sound made us look up. A second later, there was an almighty explosion as the roof blew apart.” While on the edge of the pier seeing the Victorian-aged dance hall on fire, Russell took his camera and shot what would become the film’s final act when Tommy’s home is burnt to the ground by his mutinous converts.
With Moon’s daily binging and Townshend drinking buckets of Guinness with the lighting crew, Roger Daltrey was totally fixated on perfecting the role of Tommy as he did on stage with The Who. On Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast in 2018, Daltrey recalled how he took the method acting approach to such extremes: “I was playing a character who was deaf, dumb and blind, so I went through that hardly speaking to anyone, hardly seeing anything. I laid for a whole day under Tina Turner’s skirt (during the Acid Queen sequence) and for the life of me, I can’t tell you one thing I saw; I find that really strange.”
In her platform shoes and Yves Saint-Laurent skirt looking like the owner of a New Orleans brothel, Tina Turner never felt more comfortable playing the Acid Queen. After David Bowie turned down the role to focus on his post-Ziggy Stardust career, Turner agreed to play the prostitute who attempts to cure Tommy with sex and drugs. Her trip to London to shoot her scenes was a breath of fresh air from the abuse she endured back in Los Angeles at the hands of her husband/manager, Ike. Tina’s conversion to Buddhism after a near-fatal pill overdose, along with Hollywood knocking on her door, confirmed that she didn’t need Ike in her career or life. On the set, her friendship with Ann-Margret blossomed as they planned a one-hour TV special after Tommy’s release, which would lead Tina to divorce Ike in 1976.
Tina Turner as the Acid Queen in Tommy:
Columbia Pictures didn’t have pinball machines in its offices until Tommy became the talk of the studio. Columbia Pictures President, David Begelman, was ecstatic over Tommy’s rough cut and felt it was the much-needed hit for the floundering studio. While Columbia was desperate for a series of hit movies after a string of box office bombs, Begelman was responsible for greenlighting Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Tommy, perfectly sandwiched in the middle, grossed $34 million at the U.S. box office and garnered two Oscar nominations; one for Best Actress (Ann-Margaret) and one for musical score (Peter Townshend).
However, Tommy would haunt Begelman as he personally requested Columbia to pay $35,000 to a special sound consultant named Peter Choate. Choate wasn’t a sound consultant, but an architect who constructed a screening room in Begelman’s home at Columbia’s expense with the specifically modified five-channel speaker system to watch the final cut of the film. Along with other accounts of embezzlement staked against him, as reported in David McClintick’s book Indecent Exposure, Begelman never recovered from the scandal and took his own life with a gun at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles in 1994.
As for The Who, they continued to tour after the filming of Tommy was completed. However, the film would also lead to the band members each embarking on different solo projects. Roger Daltrey starred as Franz Liszt in Ken Russell’s wild biopic, Lisztomania; John Entwistle was making his own albums; Keith Moon moved to Malibu to pursue an acting career before dying of an accidental overdose in 1978 and Townshend would continue to write for himself and The Who in their various incarnations; with and without Keith and John Entwistle, who died the night before the band’s 2002 U.S. Tour. Ken Russell would continue to raise eyebrows with films like Altered States, Crimes of Passion and The Lair of the White Worm up until his death in 2011.
Lisztomania, directed by Ken Russell, starring Roger Daltry, trailer:
As for the film, Tommy stands tall as one of the loudest, most peculiar and slightly moving films to come out of the haze that was the 1970s. In the current climate of self-isolation and social-distancing, Tommy might just prove to be a miracle cure 45 years on.