Tommy "Tommy" on Blu-ray

"Who's" Your Daddy?

by Jim Bray

Pete Townshend was once quoted as saying that if anyone could make a movie out of his first Rock Opera masterpiece, it would be Ken Russell.

As it turns out, that's exactly who made it - though whether or not Russell made a good movie out of the 1969 Who album is another question altogether – and it may depend a lot upon your age and how many "substances" you've recently ingested.

Sony Pictures' Blu-ray release of the Tommy film is by far the best video incarnation of this rock vision to date, not that such a fact should be a surprise. Not only does it offer the best picture quality yet, but they've also returned "Tommy" to its original audio roots: with the Sansui/QS matrix "Quintaphonic" five channel audio presentation the movie took into a variety of movie theaters during its initial run.

Now, five channel audio is what we expect from a modern movie, and DVD's and Blu-rays, but in 1975 it was extremely innovative. It never really caught on because it was supplanted by Dolby Surround (which isn't a bad thing, actually), which was a lot more efficient to put on film than the magnetically-based Quintaphonic.

I saw "Tommy" in Spokane, Washington, in its original Quintaphonic glory and it was an exciting experience, though the Quintaphonic sound kept crapping out during the presentation I saw. But what I did hear was pretty cool, though back then many (if not most) theaters weren't putting a lot of effort into providing good sound – and thank goodness for filmmakers such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and others for pushing the audio limits in their movies starting around then.  

Anyway, Sony deserves a lot of credit for resurrecting the 5 channel audio tracks (which are also offered in more conventional dts HD Master Audio 5.1 surround on the same disc). It's nice to have the choice of the original soundtrack. That said, however, and having listened to real quadraphonic sound for many years and then gotten used to Dolby Digital surround and the new generations of dts HD and Dolby TrueHD, "Tommy's" Quintaphonic track leaves something to be desired. That's because there isn't enough low end in it, so the soundtrack comes off as a bit weak.

When we played the DVD in our home theater, the sound came mostly from the center and the surround channels, and (maybe, as mentioned, because movie theater speakers were for the most part anything but high fidelity back then) the sound had little "ooomph". John Entwistle and the other bassists used on the soundtrack might as well not have showed up in the studio.

The Blu-ray is much better, though still not as good as I'd hoped. The audio is much more dynamic, with much better bass, and is overall much more satisfying as long as you have a room in which you can really crank it up.

The dts HD track is the better of the two, offering a more realistic and dynamic sound, though neither is a good as I'd hoped for (but, to be fair, didn't really expect). It's too bad. As mentioned, you'll have to crank the volume up to a level quite a bit higher than your normal listening level to get the most satisfaction out of it (and believe me, you'll want to. This is WHO MUSIC!!!!), before you can cause the walls to rattle and/or hum, no homages to other bands intended.  

The default audio level I usually find optimal for the home theater in which I reviewed Tommy is "70" – a level that's loud enough without being overpowering. I had to crank the Rotel preamp/processor to "80" for Tommy, though, to approach an appropriate (at least for this movie!) level. And at a volume like that, the "thinness" of the analog origins is still apparent, though more tolerable.

There's a nice essay included with the Blu-ray that outlines the process they used for restoring the original audio, so it looks as if they did their best. The problem was likely with the technology or recording methodology of the time.

However you slice it, though, this is still head and shoulders better than even the Superbit DVD Sony released several years back, in both picture and sound quality.

For anyone who's been living under a rock (or far from Rock) for the past forty years, Tommy is the story (as much as there is a story to what's essentially a very fine double album) of a boy rendered deaf dumb and blind by a childhood trauma, but who overcomes his handicap to become a champion pinball player. Later (on side three, for people who remember vinyl records), another trauma cures him and he uses his new freedom, his wealth and his celebrity to found a new religion. This ultimately blows up in his face and his flock revolts, leaving Tommy isolated and lonely and singing "See Me, Feel Me."

But Who cares about the story. It's The Who's music that's worth the price of admission. Tommy is a legitimate rock masterpiece and Russell wisely brought in the band – mostly Townshend – to help with the score.

The film featured a couple of new Townshend songs and a completely new, synthesizer-laden arrangement. It's very good, though it's also very "1970's" in sound (not surprisingly) and though it works well for the movie, it can't touch the original album.

The 1990's Broadway musical wisely returned to the "original" rock roots of the music and did a very fine job, leaving the cinematic "Tommy" soundtrack as a time capsule of an overproduced electronic era – though if one had to use layers of synthesizers to make one's musical point, Townshend was probably the best to do it.

The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p widescreen (1.85:1) and, as mentioned, the picture quality is very good, easily the best video Tommy yet. It's a very colorful movie and the source materials have been treated very nicely, giving us a bright and sharp and colorful Blu-ray that definitely does the subject material justice. Black levels are very good as well. I don't think this is a reference quality disc, but it's a fine presentation.

I've already opined ad nauseam about the audio, so I shan't comment upon it further.

Extras include BD-Live and a BD-Live-enabled "Movie IQ" feature that basically brings IMDB-type information to your home theater, with info on the stars and makers of the film, trivia, and the like. It's slow to load and doesn't offer a lot of meat you can't get elsewhere, but it's a thoughtful addition – and it's there if you want it. You can create your own playlists, too, and have the net-enabled service email it to you. I don't get the point of this; you get a list but not the actual songs and the list I created was just that: a list, with nothing clickable or any kind of interactivity.

I appears more like a way for you to help promote the film for Sony, which is great for them but of questionable value for you.

Unfortunately, if you want to fire up the pop up menu while in Movie IQ mode you have to leave that mode first.

There are also a couple of trailers.

Despite my angst about the overall sound quality, this is clearly and easily the best "Tommy" to have been released on home video, so if you're a Who fan or a Tommy fan, you'll definitely want it in your collection.

Tommy, from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
111 minutes, 1080p widescreen (1.85:1), "Quintaphonic" 5.0 and dts HD 5.1 channel surround
Starring Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Keith Moon, and The Who.
Produced by Robert Stigwood and Ken Russell, Based on the Rock Opera by Pete Townshend (with songs by John Entwistle, Keith Moon and Sonny Boy Williamson)
Directed by Ken Russell

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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