Ken Russell’s cinematic take on The Who’s ground-breaking 1969 concept album, which celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year, is a feverish feast of unrestrained imagination. Tommy, the spectacular rock opera that was a box office smash in 1975, returns to the big screen on 22 November 2019, released in selected cinemas UK-wide by the BFI as part of BFI Musicals! The Greatest Show On Screen. Russell’s virtuosity and iconoclasm are intoxicating, while the film’s targets of consumerism, religion and deluded leaders remain unnervingly prescient.
‘Tommy’, the band’s fourth studio album, was mostly composed by The Who’s guitarist Pete Townshend. Released on 17 May 1969, it was critically acclaimed, reached No. 2 in the album charts and was a great success for the band as a touring album, with performances at Woodstock, and at the Isle of Wight Festival in both 1969 and 1970. Townshend said of the album: “I wanted it to appeal as a fairy story to young people and to be intellectually entertaining. But I also wanted it to have a spiritual message.” The spiritual influence came from Meher Baba, an Indian mystic, whose work Townshend had been introduced to a couple of years previously.
A film version of the album was always a likelihood. During the recording of the album Townshend’s fellow band members were having trouble grasping his concepts and their co-manager Kit Lambert actually wrote a screenplay of the story to help them understand the story more fully.
The film and its new soundtrack album featured six new songs, all written by Townshend, which were added to make the somewhat abstract story more complete. As well as The Who, the film’s music track and the original soundtrack LP also employed several session musicians including Ronnie Wood.
Tommy was released in the UK on 26 March 1975 and in the US the same month. It was the closing film at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. Ann-Margret won a Golden Globe Award for her performance and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Pete Townshend also received an Oscar nomination for his work in scoring and adapting the music for the film. Opening with a wave of publicity, the film was a box office hit. Ken Russell later said it was “the most commercial film I’ve ever made.”
The BFI has released a new Trailer to celebrate the upcoming re-release, check it out…
A boy witnesses a violent act that leaves him in shock, and he appears to lose the ability to hear, see or speak. An encounter with a pinball machine seems to re-awaken his senses and he soon becomes a ‘pinball wizard’ – but will these skills be enough for him to make it in the real world?
Ken Russell’s classic Rock Opera stars Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner and The Who.
On 22 November Tommy is re-released as part of BFI Musicals! By coincidence, two weeks later, on 6 December, The Who will release their first album in 13 years, titled ‘Who’