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Tommy"Tommy" on Superbit DVD

"Who's" Your Daddy?

by Jim Bray

Columbia Tristar has tried to right a wrong with its Superbit release of the classic Who rock opera. The original DVD featured a very good picture as well as offering the movie's original "Quintophonic" soundtrack, but the 1970's vintage audio was thin and relied far too much on the surround channels for musical instruments rather than the more common practice of today of using the surrounds mostly for effects.

So is the Superbit Tommy truly an Amazing Journey capable of bringing Eyesight to the Blind?

Well, yes and no. It's definitely better than the original, but despite the engineers' best attempts one can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Okay, that may be a tad unfair; it's eminently watchable even if we were still disappointed in the audio quality.

More about that later.

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.

And, 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 ingested.

And either DVD release of Tommy, but especially this Superbit one, offers by far the best video incarnation of this rock vision. Not only does it offer the best picture quality yet, but as mentioned above they've returned "Tommy" to its original audio roots: with the Sansui/QS matrix "Quintaphonic" five channel audio.

Now, five channel audio is what we expect from a modern movie/DVD, but in 1975 it was innovative in the extreme. Quintophonic was replaced shortly after Tommy by Dolby Surround, which was a lot more efficient to put on film than the magnetically-based Quintaphonic.

I first saw "Tommy" in Spokane, Washington, in its original Quintaphonic glory and it was an exciting experience. As the posters and commercials said "Your senses will never be the same" - except that during the showing my wife and I attended the surround channels kept turning on and off quite annoyingly.

Columbia Tristar deserves a lot of credit for resurrecting the 5 channel audio tracks (the original DVD also offered two channel surround, though as in Superbit tradition that choice is eliminated from the new disc). But having listened to real quadraphonic sound for many years and then gotten used to Dolby Digital surround, "Tommy's" Quintaphonic leaves a lot to be desired. The producers seem to have spent so much energy surrounding you with whiz bang sound that they forgot the front left and right channels.

In our home theater, the sound came mostly from the center and the surround channels, and (maybe because theater speakers were anything but high fidelity back then) the sound is quite thin, with little "ooomph" to it. The late John Entwistle and the other bassists used on the soundtrack might as well not have showed up in the studio for all the low frequency that makes it from the speakers.

Mostly, anyway. "The Acid Queen" and "Eyesight to the Blind" offer fairly good bass, but they're the exception that proves the rule.

It's too bad. You can crank the volume up as much as you want (and believe me, we want. This is WHO MUSIC!!!!), but you won't rattle the walls. Oh, the Superbit versions are appreciably better, especially the DTS soundtrack, though only a bit louder, than the original DVD, but if you want the Who in all their decibel-searing glory, get the "Live At Royal Albert Hall" DVD which, with the Live at Leeds remaster, are the only recordings that really do the Who's raw power justice.

I suspect this isn't the studio's fault. There's a nice essay included with the original DVD that outlines the process they used for restoring the audio, and of course the Superbit treatment is also meant to best exploit the sonic potential, so it looks like they did their best. The problem was likely with the technology of the time or the way they applied it.

After all, even the CD soundtrack sounds compressed and muddy...

For anyone who's been living under a rock (or far from Rock) for the past thirty years, Tommy is the story (as much as there is a story to what's essentially a very fine concept 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 and his wealth and celebrity to found a 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, and the Tommy movie 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" and though it worked very well at the time, you can't beat the original album for sheer musical quality.

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

The Superbit DVD is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio and, as mentioned, the picture quality is excellent, with rich colors and a sharp image that belies Tommy's age and relatively low budget. Is it appreciably better than the original DVD? Well, no; the original disc was excellent, picture-wise, so while the Superbit process does improve it subtly you really have to watch for it.

I've already opined ad nauseam about the audio (which, in Superbit trdition is offered in both Dolby Digital and DTS surround), so I shan't comment upon it further.

As with most Superbit titles, you lose the extras to gain the audio/video quality and that's fine with me.

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

Tommy - the Superbit version, from Columbia Tristar Home Video
111 minutes, Widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 TV compatible, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS audio
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


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Updated May 13, 2006