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Who Loves Opera

TommysoundtrackalbumGerry and I were listening to Sirius’s The 70s channel on a long turnpike ride home from our New Jersey children. There’s nothing better than a Sunday afternoon riding shotgun, my knitting in my lap, while I occasionally look up to notice the landscapes of New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island slide by. Knowing most of the words to the songs on the radio is a bonus.  Gerry and I often switch to the 60s so that we know ALL the words to the songs. We were simply Groovin’ on a Sunday Afternoon.

As we were singing along to The Pinball Wizard, the Who’s rock opera Tommy came to mind that afternoon.  Images from the 1975 musical and Roger Daltrey’s luscious golden curls apparently entered my consciousness from that area of my hard-driven brain that stores my young adulthood memories.

I put down my knitting, picked up my smartphone and checked the library catalog using the new Minuteman Library app. Sure enough, many libraries had CDs of the original rock opera and/or the musical soundtrack and others had the DVD of the musical. (If you haven’t downloaded the app for your smartphone, it’s time.)

A few days later that week, the Tommy DVD arrived for me on the holds shelf at the library. I had to chuckle because my past weekend’s momentary love affair with Roger Daltrey was now only a distant memory. I tucked the DVD in my purse promising myself that I would watch it on the weekend, which I did. Gerry was puttering about in the cellar and I sat in front on the television armed with my latest knitting project.

I admit I shook my head several times watching the movie I remembered … and the scenes I had someone forgotten all about. I laughingly narrated the film’s greatest – and not so greatest – moments for Gerry who had somehow missed the 1975 classic the first – and second – time around.
Oh, the 70s. What fun.

Watching old 70s and 80s movies, I’ve often wondered what we Baby Boomers were thinking. What is up with those Cold War relics? The jazzy, bizarre music, the spy chases, the Go-Go boots, and the psychedelic montages. And films like Tommy.

George Ball (American diplomat, banker and politician) is quoted as saying “nostalgia is a seductive liar.” I agree that the funny thing about nostalgia is that it does peculiar things to memories. And I guess I remembered those flawless and unspoiled moments of Tommy and I simply ignored the rest.

Tommy was The Who’s fourth album after a mixed reception to the previous one.  The band’s guitarist Pete Townshend wrote most of the music for the rock opera.  The double album Tommy was released in 1969 and some claimed that Tommy was the Who’s breakthrough. The band went on the road performing Tommy live in 1969 and 1970. The Seattle Opera produced it on stage in 1971, the film version was released in 1975, and the stage musical hit Broadway in 1992. Other versions of the opera are on CD, including an orchestral version. (If you are searching the library catalog, you’ll want to know what version you are requesting.) The Tommy album has sold over 20 million copies and was inducted in the Grammy’s Hall of Fame.

Townshend wrote the themed songs to tell a story; he named the rock opera “Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Boy.” In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1969, Townshend said that Tommy is “about a kid that’s born deaf, dumb and blind and what happens to him throughout his life … he’s seeing things basically as vibrations which translate as music.” In the film and stage versions, however, it is a traumatic moment in Tommy’s young life that turn him catatonic – no longer feeling, seeing, hearing, or speaking.

Re-watching the film last weekend, I relived its exhilarating, silly, awesome, and blushing moments the nearly two hours. It stars Ann-Margret and Rex Reed as Tommy’s mother and step-father but it’s the cameos that are so joyful and entertaining. A young 38-year old Jack Nicholson is The Specialist – the doctor who determines that Tommy still senses, but that he is blocked inside. Singing to Ann-Margret, Tommy’s mother, is much more interesting to The Specialist than finding a cure for the boy, however, and Nicholson is magnificent in the scene.

28-year old Elton John plays The Local Lad and his piano riff at the beginning of the Pinball Wizard scene is pure Elton, along with his bizarre outfit and oversized, glittery glasses. 36-year old Tina Turner sings her heart out deliciously as the Acid Queen (but never manages to waken Tommy’s senses.) The Who’s own drummer, Keith Moon, plays a creepy but comical Uncle Ernie.

It’s certainly 34-year old Ann-Margret who is the movie’s real star. She was nominated for an Academy Award in 1976 but she lost to Louise Fletcher (who won as Nurse Rached in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.) Ann-Margret’s voice and beauty are unmistakable; however, the most odd and peculiar (perhaps cringe worthy) scene in the film involves the actress dancing in a purely white and glistening room and eventually rolling around completely covered in spewing chocolate. Oh, the free and surrealistic 70s. They were so much, um, fun.

Tommy is played by a young Barry Winch through the first six songs (Captain Walker/It’s a Boy, Bernie’s Holiday Camp, What About the Boy? and Christmas). Teenaged Tommy is played by Roger Daltrey, spending much of the film looking beautiful, gazing blindly about, and underreacting. Daltrey first shows up as a young teen in Eric Clapton’s on-screen performance as the Preacher. Clapton attempts to cure Tommy in Eyesight to the Blind and Daltry finally awakens in Smash the Mirror.  He emerges naked chested in the finale in skin-tight wet jeans. His sunlit hair surrounds his handsome face as he belts out Listening to You, a finale that speaks to his own power of overcoming arrogance and adversity.

In all its 70s rocked-out glory, Tommy is still a delightful romp and well-worth the two hours of a winter afternoon. You can read more about the band and Tommy in Chris Welch’s The Who: The Story of the Band that Defined a Generation (2015). Or you can simply request the DVD, the soundtracks or original recording of the rock opera Tommy from the library. Minuteman Libraries have the versions you’ll need.

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts.  Read Charlotte’s column in the March 23rd issue of the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin.


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