The Who: Sensation - The Story of Tommy

Doug Collette By

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The Who
Sensation-The Story of Tommy
Eagle Video

In a reflection of the dynamism of their stage presence, Sensation -The Story of Tommy jumps back and forth between a history of the early Who and the seeds of inspiration that, in combining guitarist/composer Pete Townshend's ambition, encouragement from co-manager Kit Lambert and the exploratory creativity of the late Sixties, ignited a not so spontaneous combustion of rock and roll art that was Tommy.

It is somewhat unsettling throughout the documentary to absorb the quick cuts of concert footage of the Who (some at the earliest point in their development) interspersed by interviews with a very healthily objective and insightful Townshend, vocalist Roger Daltrey and discerning British journalist such as Chris Welch. But the interweaving of the content in its various forms has a certain logic, even though it's not immediately apparent.

Townshend's spiritual predilections are initially introduced as a practical basis for the Who's work in general and the rock opera in particular, and progressively become an avenue for artistic productivity. It's an accurate reflection of the times that, while the various images in Tommy may be more than a little jarring, as a mirror of the cultural as well as The Who's evolution, their depiction leads to fruition of this seminal work itself as well as the quartet's chemistry.

That sequence of events as expressed not so metaphorically in Tommy includes the means by which Townshend addresses his personal issues too. But that process also becomes the foundation of an effort on the part of the Who and their management to simultaneously transcend their heretofore erratic mainstream success, in the form of singles like "I Can See for Miles," and expand the scope of early efforts in extended storytelling such as "A Quick One Whiles He's Away." Ultimately, Tommy was as much (or perhaps more) of last ditch effort to preserve the Who as much as realize their collective artistic ambition.

Pete Townshend's confidence in his abilities was mirrored in the support he received from the other three members of the Who as well as, quite significantly, collaborators such as graphic artist Mike McInerney who came up with the striking visual images for the album's artwork. Startling it its stereo separation, the clarity of the audio mix in the music accompaniment for Sensation very quickly becomes redolent of the various epiphanies the creative team experienced in the course of writing and recording: snippets of Townshend in his home studio creating "Pinball Wizard" may in fact represent the breakthrough the Who were looking for with this entire project in terms of its concept as well as its ultimate success: bringing the subject of the opera down to earth, but also garnering the Who the necessary commercial hit from the expansive album.

The DVD almost begs for repeated viewings, much like its musical counterpart calls for repeated listenings, but, after a fast-paced ninety minutes, there is nevertheless some nagging sense the video comes to a hurried end, an impression lessened through the inclusion of 'The Who at the Beat Club 1969.' Reaffirming some of the main points of Sensation, the use of McInnerny's graphic images from the album's cover art reduces the kitschy factor of the lip-synched performances as presented, the usually staid nature of which the Who further transcend through their kinetic stage presence as they mime playing selections from the opera. The interview segments with Townshend digress from analysis of Tommy, but his observations on his work, in specific and in general, are as thought provoking as the performance segments are eye-opening.

The aforementioned content the German TV series also helps reinforce the depiction of the growth of Tommy as a live act simultaneous to the development of the Who as a performing unit. As much as the storyline of the opera is literally fantastic, when the Who's success exploded exponentially with the work's acceptance, the piece morphed into a very direct reflection of the group's (and author Townshends's) growth as celebrities, particularly when the film and stage versions became successful. Sensation-The Story of Tommy thus becomes a comprehensive and essential entry into the iconic band's oeuvre.
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