'Sensation: The Story of the Who's Tommy' Lives Up to Its Name

What more is there to say about the rock opera, Tommy? Quite a lot.

Sensation: The Story of the Who’s Tommy

Director: Martin R. Smith
Cast: Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Bob Pridden, Mike McInnerney, Keith Moon, John Entwistle
Distributor: Eagle Rock
Studio: Eagle Vision
Year: 2014
UK Release date: 2014-03-10
US Release date: 2014-03-11

Above: The Who Perform Tommy

Seen, Felt, Touched, Healed

The story of the incredible rock band The Who and their arguably most famous Tommy has been told almost as many times as that of Rapunzel letting down her hair. There are documentaries about the 1969 album, the tours, the resurgent concert performance with its many guest stars, the 1975 film adaptation, the motivation behind the creation of this iconic rock opera and, of course the stage musical which debuted in 1992. What more is there to say?

The answer to that question remains “quite a lot”. A related question might be “Is there a market for more documentaries on The Who’s Tommy?” The answer to that one is “Of course!”

It’s a common misconception that “Tommy made The Who”. While it's true that Tommy remains the band’s most recognizable single work (and certainly marked the dividing line between The Who as stars and The Who as SUPERstars), Tommy was hardly The Who’s first success, nor is the rock opera truly considered (by most fans and critics) to be The Who’s best album. The Who had already broken ground with iconoclastic albums like The Who Sell Out, which featured the huge hit (and incredible hard rock) of “I Can See for Miles”, which was only one of a great many big hit singles for the burgeoning, inventive British Invasion band. Tommy immediately stood out in 1969, not simply because of what it was (one of the best concept albums of all time and arguably the first bona fide rock operas ever made), but because of who it was that created this opus.

To be sure, The Who had flirted with mini-rock operas before. These include the nine-minute (and misleadingly titled) “A Quick One, While He’s Away” (from the 1966 album A Quick One), which contains several movements and tells a story about multiple (speaking) characters. Also noteworthy are the songs “Rael 1” and “Rael 2” from the aforementioned The Who Sell Out, the pair of which constitute something of a mini-opera and “Glow Girl” from the same album, some of the lyrics and music of which were rearranged for use In Tommy.

However, Sensation: The Story of the Who’s Tommy points out that while these precursors to Tommy were acclaimed and known by fans, The Who were primarily recognized as hit-makers with a long string of successful singles. Tommy, the story of a blind deaf mute, his inability to comprehend or interact with his world, his subsequent awakening, rise, fall and rise, set the band up in the public’s eyes as true visionary artists befitting of their near-peerless virtuoso-level command of their instruments. The success of Tommy, of course, led to a great many rock operas, many of which have become as (or more) iconic, such as Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and The Who’s own Quadrophenia.

All of these remarkable observations are made through brand new interviews with lead guitarist, singer, lead songwriter and Tommy creator Pete Townshend, as well as the dynamic lead singer (who portrayed Tommy Walker himself in the original opera and the 1975 motion picture) Roger Daltrey (who still looks about 20 years younger than he is). In that these are some of the first interviews that truly delve into the somewhat recently unearthed facts about Townshend’s childhood sexual abuse, this is an exceptionally noteworthy documentary.

Townshend’s stories substantiate the creation of Tommy and help to explain the reason why young Mr. Walker became, in fact, a “deaf dumb and blind boy”. Archival footage and interviews with the late bassist John Entwistle and the late drummer Keith Moon further enhance the personal nature of Tommy and make for a more “sensational” Sensation.

Sensation originally aired on television, but the Blu-ray version contains a (welcome) extended version of the film with full 1080i high definition widescreen (both the new and archival footage look and sound incredible here). The biggest bonus for this enchanting package is the 1969 footage from the TV show Beat Club, which has been previously unreleased between its original airing and this disc package. Beat Club features a long (and exciting) performance by The Who, including tracks from the album Tommy and an intriguing early interview with Townshend, which makes for an interesting contrast against the 2013 interview footage.

For all of the thoroughness of this “rockumentary”, it's noteworthy that the film is exceedingly light on coverage of the 1975 movie version of Tommy. Whether this is due to rights issues (most of the songs were performed by other artists besides The Who) or due to intentional omission (many fans consider the film to be the least of the incarnations of Tommy) is hard to say, however, the playing down of the film (or any part of the evolution of Tommy) is noteworthy, especially as the stage play received significant coverage here.

That said, the focus of any exploration of Tommy is, of course, the rock opera itself, the original album. Sensation: The Story of the Who’s Tommy most assuredly covers this album (and most of its scions) beautifully well. While there's no dearth of documentaries about this groundbreaking and influential album, Sensation is one that truly does live up to its name.

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.