Tommy was one prolific deaf, dumb, and blind boy. The Who’s 1969 double album didn’t just set their career on track at a time when it seemed to be sputtering and officially entered the term “rock opera” into the pop lexicon. It became an ace vehicle for the band’s stage shows, an all-star symphonic album and concert series, an overblown Ken Russell movie, and a Tony-winning Broadway musical. Fortunately, Martin R. Smith’s 2013 documentary The Who – Sensation – The Story of Tommy is really only concerned with the original album that— along with the rock performances it spawned—was the best thing about the phenomenon. Pete Townshend and his buddy and faithful Who-chronicler Richard Barnes do most of the heavy lifting, while Roger Daltrey, soundman Bob Pridden, artist Mike McInnerney, and a small clutch of rock critics contribute additional color.
Because Sensation is mostly concerned with what Pete Townshend intended Tommy to mean, and because that meaning is so intensely personal to him, some of the story of the opera’s creation gets short shrift. Manager Kit Lambert’s role in helping steer the songwriter into the rock opera realm is underplayed, as are the contributions of John Entwistle (who composed two key episodes in Tommy Walker’s troubled childhood) and Keith Moon (who devised the zany holiday camp aspect of the story). Nevertheless, it is always fascinating to hear Pete Townshend to talk about—well—pretty much anything. He is especially candid in Sensation, getting deeper into some of his own childhood traumas he’d discussed in his autobiography Who I Am. His candor makes Sensation more than some rote “Classic Albums” episode, and we learn how extensively the rock opera was inspired by his own experiences. Townshend’s ability to weave personal sadness into such grand success is a true triumph.
Augmenting the feature on Eagle Vision's new home video release is one fantastic extra: The Who’s complete 1969 Tommy special from the German series “Beat Club”. As well as miming along to eight Tommy tracks with his band against a chroma-key backdrop of pinball tables and Mike McInnerney’s artwork, Townshend fields questions about his newly written opera. The special is a fab piece of Rock & Roll kitsch very true to the spirit of The Who.