Hive Five: Reasons Ken Russell Changed Film With ‘Tommy’

Ken Russell on the set of "Tommy," 1975. Photo: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

A true original left our world when British director Ken Russell shuffled off this mortal coil on November 27 at the age of 84. Throughout his long, luminous career, Russell didn’t just bend the rules of movie making; he took a blowtorch to the rulebook and did a gleeful jig atop the flames. The maverick filmmaker gave us everything from the tripped-out sci-fi of Altered States to the convention-shattering cinematic version of the Who’s rock opera Tommy. In honor of Russell’s unfettered imagination, here’s a look at some of the latter’s boldest breakthroughs.

1. Concept album + Ken Russell = rock opera

The Who’s original Tommy album, released in 1969, is usually credited as the first full-fledged rock opera, but technically it was more of a concept album, with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend singing almost every character’s parts. It wasn’t until Ken Russell took Tommy to the screen that it finally achieved its true operatic scale, with Daltrey taking the title role and the rest of the cast filled out by an unprecedented combination of actors and rockers.

2. Rock stars come in for their close-ups

Speaking of the musical members of Tommy’s cast, it’s tough to think of another film up to that point that featured in-character appearances from the likes of Eric Clapton (as The Preacher singing “Eyesight to the Blind”), Tina Turner (The Acid Queen, belting the song of the same name), and Elton John (forever after inextricably associated with “Pinball Wizard”). Since the ‘50s, rock & roll films had been filled with high-powered musical guest stars, but they appeared strictly as themselves, not as a Marilyn Monroe-obsessed spiritualist (Clapton) or an LSD-dispensing lady of the evening (Turner).

3. The Who Unleashed

Before Tommy, no other rock band had ever been allowed such a high degree of access to the creative process for a mainstream movie. The Beatles’ music and moptopped mugs may have been the main focus of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, but the Fabs were following someone else’s script, and for all its atmospheric gravitas, Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii was still just a concert film with a dead volcano instead of an audience.

4. Everything sounds cooler in Quintaphonic

Like every other aspect of Tommy, its sound technology — crucial for such a cutting-edge marriage of rock and the silver screen — busted out beyond anything that was happening elsewhere. The most advanced sound systems in widespread use at the time were quadraphonic, but with the aid of audio whiz John Mosely, Tommy was cut in something called Quintaphonic sound. It was so ahead of its time that the only theaters that could properly accommodate it were ones that were specially outfitted for the occasion (an eventual switch to stereo was made), and no other film ever dared to attempt the Quintaphonic route.

5. The short, sensational acting career of Keith Moon

It should have surprised no one that notorious wild man Keith Moon, a larger-than-life figure even within the imposing environs of the Who, came close to stealing Tommy away from such film vets as Oliver Reed and Ann-Margaret. Only the winningly maniacal drummer could have successfully shown the world a comic side to a character like the pedophilic Uncle Ernie. If Moon hadn’t already been well on his way to the early grave that he finally found three years after the film’s release, it’s tough to believe he wouldn’t have tried his hand at acting again.

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