Anybody generally familiar with opera will immediately recognize that the Who's Tommy suffers from neither a weak nor outrageous nor terribly surreal nor even bizarre storyline in comparison to what passes for plot in many classic operas.
And anybody generally familiar with 1970s cinema will note that Ken Russell's envisioning of this film was actually one of a very small handful of intelligent and serious musicals produced during that decade, not a psychedelic experiment or a contribution to the avant-garde.
Many of the less complementary comments offered here on IMDb concerning this movie appear to be driven by commenters' personal opinions or prejudices about The Who or about Ken Russel, and seem to have very little to do with this film.
In 1969, The Who released their wildly innovative breakthrough album "Tommy". Written almost entirely by 23-year old Pete Townshend, Tommy was, like many albums of its time, an early example of album-oriented rock. But unlike similarly assembled LPs by the likes of Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles, etc., Tommy told a story through music and lyrics.
Tommy knew his father - Captain Walker - mainly through the photograph which has stood on the nightstand next to his bed all of his young life. His mother, Nora (Ann Margaret), a war widow, has shacked up with "Uncle Frank", a well-off and well-intentioned but rather low-brow gentleman (Oliver Reed). One night, Captain Walker comes home to find his beloved wife in bed with Uncle Frank, and Uncle Frank, in a panic, kills him. Tommy witnesses this and Nora and Frank expand the trauma by shouting silence and near-catatonic autism into the young boy with the classic lines "You didn't hear it, you didn't see it, you won't say nothing to no one, never tell a soul... what you know is the truth."
So Tommy grows up in a state of trauma-induced deafness, muteness and blindness. Guilt and sincere love drive his mother and her new husband Frank to seek every possible cure, and Townshend (and Russel) waste no opportunity to skewer religion, medical science, traditional family dynamics, and testosterone-influenced views of sexual rites of passage.
Eventually, Tommy and his mother will find their own cures - in quite unexpected places. And Tommy will offer his apparently miraculous awareness to the rest of the world as a universal form of salvation.
Although the medium of the album and the film is rock music, Tommy strings together many of the most powerful elements of classical opera. Religion plays an important, though atypical, role in Townshend's story. Allegory is a key to understanding the entire process. And both the lyrics and the film incorporate widespread and often incisive social criticism - touching on broad intellectual themes such as the escape from freedom, the subjectivity of truth, and the inherent futility and silliness of most efforts to improve the lot of humanity.
If you let yourself 'go with it' Tommy will likely take you places you've never been. I won't promise that you will like it, but rather, that if you keep your mind open and let it pour in, like most operas, Tommy will move you.
WITH REGARD TO THE FILM:
Facing a nearly impossible task, Ken Russel enlisted Townshend, Daltrey, and a host of very talented and popular musicians and actors to make Tommy. Most of the time, this works - Ann Margaret, Roger Daltrey, and cameos by Jack Nicholson, Elton John, Tina Turner and Keith Moon are all outstanding. Unfortunately, Oliver Reed, as well-cast as he was, has no vocal talent to speak of, and Eric Clapton has the on-screen charisma of a desk lamp.
Despite the common 21st century wisdom concerning the amount of experimentalism in 1970s films, films like Tommy, Rollerball, Deathrace 2000, French Connection, Solyaris, 2001, etc, were actually very few and far between during that decade. In fact, most of the films released in the 1970s were so uninventive and uninteresting that they can only be found on public domain download sites and budget mega-pack DVD sets.
Although Russell was a shoe-in for directing this film - given his longstanding interest in visualization of classical music (http://pro.imdb.com/name/nm0001692/) and more challenging subjects, Tommy was - even for Russell - a wildly innovative film:
NO DIALOGUE -
a singing cast tells the story, set against The Who's original music, and Russell's visual story-telling is as powerful and striking here as it was in Gothic and many of his better-known films. Oliver Reed's bellowing vocalizations are a bit overbearing, and too much synthesizer is added to embellish a score which was 6-years old by the time the film was released. But the problems with the sound track are at least partly made-up for by fabulously campy musical cameos by Tina Turner and Elton John, and - FINALLY - by Daltrey's excellent performance once Tommy himself gains a voice. Ann Margaret's singing is also quite good, but, unfortunately, several of her songs are infected by Reed's brutish howling.
All considered Tommy is a must-see for open-minded film enthusiasts, and particularly those interested in the evolution of the modern musical.