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This classic rock opera is brought energetically to life by an outstanding cast including many stars of the rock music industry. Told through the remarkable music of The Who, this is the story of Tommy, who, when just a boy of six, witnessed the murder of his father by his mother and her lover. They command him, "You didn't hear it, you didn't see it, and you won't say anything to anyone..." As a result, the traumatized boy retreats into the shadows of his mind and becomes deaf, dumb and blind.
For more about Tommy and the Tommy Blu-ray release, see Tommy Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on September 3, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson, Elton John, Tina Turner
Director: Ken Russell
» See full cast & crew
Tommy Blu-ray Review
I've got 'Tommy;' who'll bring the baked beans, the pinball machine, and the hallucinogens?
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, September 3, 2010
That deaf, dumb, and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball.
A boy is traumatized when he witnesses his father's death. He grows into a young man thought to be deaf, dumb, and blind, but when he discovers his talents at the controls of a pinball machine, he becomes a national treasure and develops a cultish following. Talk about just pulling random story elements out of a hat. That story -- originally realized as a Rock Opera by The Who and released as their 1969 classic album Tommy -- doesn't exactly seem like something that would leave much of a lasting impression, but somebody liked it -- and its music too, of course -- enough to turn Tommy into one of the more unique motion pictures ever conceived. Director Ken Russell's film of the same name is best described as something akin to an acid trip or the effects of some other hallucinogen captured on film and audibly set to nothing other than The Who's Tommy album -- with a few tweaks for its big screen adaptation, of course. It's loud, it doesn't always make sense beyond its most basic story elements, and it's sure to divide audiences for a number of reasons, but cinephiles owe it to themselves to see Tommy at least once if for no other reason than to experience a bold slice of moviemaking that dares to drift pretty far away from convention. Even if Tommy doesn't always strike gold, it earns plenty of praise for its boldness to exist far outside the box.
Royal Air Force Pilot Captain Walker (Robert Powell) is killed during a bombing run in World War II, leaving behind a pregnant wife, Nora (Ann-Margret, Grumpy Old Men), who soon after her husband's death gives birth to their son, Tommy. Tommy seems like a normal enough lad, but while still at a young age, his mother marries a man named Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed) who offers to Tommy the father figure he never had. One night, however, Tommy's real father comes home; it turns out he didn't die in the war after all. Unfortunately, he's mistaken for an intruder and killed by Frank, right in front of Tommy. Tommy's traumatized by the event, so much so that he grows into a man (Roger Daltrey) who is thought to be deaf, dumb, and blind, all those years later never having recovered from that violent and tragic incident. Tommy's mother and stepfather struggle with their unresponsive son; he endures plenty of hardships, not the least of which are relatives who abuse him while in their care. Tommy's fortunes change when fate -- or some higher calling? -- leads him to scavenge through a junkyard where he finds an old pinball machine. It's still operational, and Tommy and his family quickly realize that he's gifted with the ability to flawlessly play the machine, even if he can't see it. Tommy quickly rises to stardom and gains a following not only as a sports hero but as a religious icon; can he and his family survive the onslaught of fame and fortune, or does fate have other plans in store?
Tommy actually requires some effort to fully -- and in some cases, partially -- understand not everything that's happening on the surface, but the driving forces that define its characters emotional, psychological, and physical states that thereby shape the picture's primary story elements of a traumatized pinball hero who gains a following as a religious icon. At its most basic level, though, Tommy proves an interesting and in many ways satisfying watch; the story is told through song and emotion and is absent a traditional verbal structure. It may be a crude comparison, but in a way it's reminiscent to one of cinema's most dazzling slices of filmmaking, Stanley Kubrick's "Dawn of Man" segment from 2001: A Space Odyssey in the way that it and Tommy both relay so much raw emotion, feeling, and thematic relevance through a complete absence of dialogue and narration, instead relying on soulful music and well-conceived visuals to tell a tale stronger and more harmoniously realized than those found in many other films of a more traditional structure. Of course, Tommy is no 2001 and Ken Russell is no Stanley Kubrick; nevertheless, the comparison stands, but it's not surprising that both pictures may be seen as two of the more untraditional and confusing of the past half-century. Tommy doesn't always get its meaning across as well as it should -- particularly once the story reaches its convoluted second half -- but its strength lies more in the effort than the end result, and in this day and age, effort is sometimes enough to push a movie over to the positive side of the ledger, which is certainly the case with Tommy.
If there is something to be gleaned from Tommy -- and its more easily-read elements in particular -- it's that the film can be seen as a metaphor for the power and unavoidability of fate. In a way, Tommy can superficially be seen as something of a weird pre-visualization of certain elements out of Forrest Gump, that movie portraying a young and crippled boy who grows into a collegiate football star, a war hero, and a champion ping pong player, among other things. However, the similarities end with the superficial, even if both do dabble in the role of fate in one's life. The story of Tommy looks at a painfully tragic string of events -- a wife loses her husband not once, but twice, with the second time to great traumatic effect on her young son -- but also ultimately finds life-changing good out of that which stems from the bad. Of course, "good" is a relative term and the film doesn't forego an analysis of "good" in terms of acquiring great wealth, fame, comfort, and prestige on the back of a young man trying to make the world a better place versus "good" meaning one's actions to try and speak to, comfort, teach, and inspire a populace that's sick both spiritually and, for some, physically. No doubt Tommy's ultimate metamorphosis into -- and his embracing of -- his stature as a Christ-like figure won't sit well with many in the audience, but, and without divulging too many spoiler plot points, perhaps the film is ultimately attempting to speak on the power and superiority of self-reliance rather than hero, idol, or god worship considering the way the story plays out. At some levels that may be seen as a plus, at many others a minus, but considering just how convoluted Tommy can be, it's not like the picture doesn't leave itself open to multiple interpretations of its religious overtones, though no doubt there are far more ways of seeing the film paint religion as a negative rather than as a positive. Then again, "religion" is depicted badly in the story because a non-religious figurehead and a person who can only inspire and teach but not save souls or claim Divine Providence is depicted as a spiritual leader and tasked both by himself and those around him to satisfy and fulfill his followers beyond his capacity as a mere mortal man. It's hard to see religion as a positive when it's bastardized to that extent, but therein lies one of the beauties that Tommy has to offer: it can be interpreted differently by anyone and everyone, and there are far too many alternatives and insights than can fit in the space allocated for this review.
No doubt, Tommy is going to split its audiences. To some extreme, that can be said for just about every picture ever made; there are those who find nothing of value in Saving Private Ryan, just like there are those who consider The Love Guru one of the greatest of cinema's treasures. With Tommy, however, one can imagine after a screening that the percentages that love, hate, and leave the movie feeling indifferent towards it might just be split more evenly than they are with most any other picture, in large part because it's so easy to see how some could react so differently towards it, even coming from a perspective on the opposite end of the spectrum. Those who love the movie may see its value as something completely different; as a metaphor for one of many attributes they may see fit in assigning to it; or they may admire the music, the craftsmanship, or the acting on display. Those who disapprove may not like the way Tommy depicts religion, or they may find the nearly two-hour barrage of nothing but classic Rock-Opera too much and leave the picture with a headache. Lastly, those who leave the picture with an indifference towards it may have simply found it too unbalanced to assign to it any real value save for the emotional satisfaction of having experienced a unique motion picture. Indeed, Tommy isn't for everyone, but the picture's ability to so greatly divide just may very well be its greatest strength. If it gets people talking at a level well beyond those routine conversations shared between friends on the way home from the latest Transformers movie or Robin Hood adaptation, then it's obviously done something right.
From a structural perspective, Tommy can be both a rewarding and frustrating experience. What's truly fascinating is the way Director Ken Russell has built the picture so that it works outside a traditional cinematic approach; viewers could either simply listen to the movie (or the original album as it were) or turn down the sound and absorb only the visuals and still understand much of what the movie has to offer. That's not necessarily a testament to the story since it's awfully basic at first glance, but it is a testament to The Who's music, Russell's direction, and the actors' ability to sell the material without part of the traditional actors' arsenal at their disposal. Indeed, Tommy features a well-rounded cast that all play their parts exceptionally well. Ann-Margaret garnered an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Tommy's mother; truth be told she's not the best the movie has to offer, but if writhing around a room while covered in baked beans and other assorted gunk doesn't prove an actress' dedication and automatically earn her an Oscar nomination, nothing will. The actor who truly captivates throughout is The Who's lead singer, Roger Daltrey, in his portrayal as Tommy. Who knew an actor could look so good and play such a convincing role when all that's asked of him for a good part of the movie is to stare off into space with wide eyes and a confused look? Daltrey nevertheless manages to give even the deaf, dumb, and blind Tommy a depth that comes as something of a surprise considering the character's circumstances; this isn't Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade or Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, but Daltrey is asked to do something just as impressive: give life and character to a physical representation of what amounts to little more than an empty shell. Daltrey manages to play to that emptiness but also show that there's still some hidden spark behind the blank eyes that comes into play later in the movie. The performance doesn't lessen when Tommy awakens from his mental slumber, but Daltrey's effort as the Tommy who becomes an overnight sensation as a pinball wizard is tough to top.
Tommy Blu-ray, Video Quality
Tommy debuts on Blu-ray with a strongly-realized 1080p transfer framed in the picture's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Though it offers an ever-so-slightly faded appearance that's in-line with the usual look of 1970s pictures, Tommy never wants for superior color reproduction. Most hues appear accurately rendered, though bright reds do tend to look slightly exaggerated and stand out against the rest of the palette. Still, the image sports a wonderfully film-like texture thanks not only to its retention of a fine layer of film grain, but the consistently sharp detailing and focused imagery that rarely lacks the spit-and-polish of a pleasantly and naturally presented film on Blu-ray. Tommy yields strong detailing in all of the usual areas, including faces and clothes, and while the finest nuanced and background elements don't look quite as natural and clear as transfers sourced from brand-new material, the image never really leaves any room for complaint. Unfortunately, very slight blocking and banding are seen on occasion, and while blacks remain nicely preserved and naturally inky, there are a few occasions where they drift towards a slightly too dark appearance and drown out finer details within the foreground. Otherwise, Tommy looks fantastic; flesh tones are natural, and the print is free of any excessive wear-and-tear. Another day, another first-class transfer from Sony.
Tommy Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Tommy's Blu-ray debut features two soundtracks: a "Quintaphonic" 5.0 mix and a more traditional DTS-HD MA 5.1 presentation. For listeners unfamiliar with a Quintaphonic track, Sony has included an informative and detailed writeup found on a two-sided leaflet located inside the Blu-ray case. The details are better left to the included information, but what listeners need to know is that the Quintaphonic track retains the basic front left, center, front right, back left, and back right speaker configuration, but the sound engineers accomplished the implementation of five channels of equal fidelity through only three magnetic soundtracks through the technique of "matrixing" -- or combining -- the front and back left and right tracks into one, while leaving the center, or primary, channel with its own discrete soundtrack. No matter the complicated technical elements behind the track; Tommy was the first -- and only -- picture to utilize this then-revolutionary sound process, and Sony's audio engineers have diligently worked to use the finest elements available to recreate as closely as possible the picture's original Quintaphonic sound presentation. The Quintaphonic mix on the Blu-ray disc is actually presented as a DTS-HD MA 5.0 soundtrack, but it retains much the same feel, spacing, and rawness of the original presentation. Indeed, the Quintaphonic track yields a listening experience that's unique to say the least; surrounds are pushed heavily and regularly, carrying as much bulk as the front, but not at the expense of decent clarity and great strength. If anything, Tommy's too loud at reference volume and the material just seems hurled at the listener from every direction, yielding something of a confused but unique and worthwhile listen. Switching to the 5.1 mix yields a much more traditional, though still surround-heavy, presentation. Clarity takes on an immediate boost as well; sample chapter nine, the "Pinball Wizard" segment, with both tracks; the differences are quite striking. Either way, Sony's dual presentations both impress, one as the original track reproduced about as well as can be, the other a more refined and traditional-sounding offering that's still in and of itself a quality listen and worthwhile track. Why not watch Tommy twice, once with each track?
Tommy Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Supplements for Tommy include MovieIQ Connectivity; BD-Live functionality; and 1080p trailers for "The Pillars of the Earth", It Might Get Loud, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Tommy Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Love it, hate it, or give it the old shoulder-shrug, viewers of any take cannot deny either the uniqueness of the picture or the debate that's sure to rage after a viewing of Tommy. Even 35 years after its release, Tommy still resonates as a divisive, structurally confused, but energetic and unique picture that plays with themes that are both easy to spot and buried too far beneath the surface and too far beyond the music and trippy visuals to fully comprehend after one, two, or three or more viewings. Maybe Tommy is best watched under the influence of something, but then again, maybe -- and probably -- not; best to go in with a clear head, an open mind, and a willingness to pick a movie apart to an extreme that most viewers have never challenged themselves with before. Tommy is a personal experience; no two in the audience will leave a screening thinking the exact same thing, and no matter one's gut reaction to the picture, those strong reactions -- one way or another -- are the sign of a great work of art that's done its duty. Sony's Blu-ray release of Tommy is disappointingly absent any special features related to the picture, but the studio has served up a handsome 1080p transfer and a pair of fabulous soundtracks. Extras or not, whacky movie or not, Tommy comes highly recommended.
Tommy: Other Editions
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Tommy Blu-ray, News and Updates
• The Who Sensation: The Story of Tommy Blu-ray - February 13, 2014
Eagle Rock Entertainment will release on Blu-ray The Who Sensation: The Story of Tommy. The release will be available for purchase online and in stores across the nation on March 11th.
• Tommy, In Cold Blood Announced on Blu-ray - June 28, 2010
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has announced two catalog titles for release on Blu-ray on September 7: The Who's rock opera Tommy; and the 1967 crime movie In Cold Blood, based on Truman Capote's world-famous non-fiction novel and previously available only as ...
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