Pete Townshend discusses filming ‘Tommy’

With an electrifying score by Pete Townshend including “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free” and “See Me, Feel Me” and transcendent performances, the Who’s seminal 1969 rock opera “Tommy” shook the foundations of the music industry.

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Murray Lerner (“From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China”) recalls that “Tommy” was a “mesmerizing” experience for those who saw it and felt it four decades ago.

“In those days, we said ‘This is like a religious experience’ when you listened to it and saw it,” says Lerner. “I think I was the first one to film the whole of ‘Tommy’ at the Isle of Wight in 1970 for my feature ‘Listening to You: The Who at the Isle of Wight Festival.’”

Five years later, iconoclastic British director Ken Russell, who was known for pushing the envelope with such controversial films as “Women in Love,” “The Music Lovers” and the X-rated “The Devils,” brought “Tommy” to the big screen. All four members of the Who appeared in the film, including lead singer Roger Daltrey as Tommy, the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who plays a mean pinball and becomes a religious icon. Russell favorite Oliver Reed played Tommy’s sleazy stepfather and Ann-Margret — in a performance that earned her a lead actress Oscar nomination — was Tommy’s troubled mother. Tina Turner was on hand as the Acid Queen, with Jack Nicholson as the Specialist and Elton John as the Pinball Wizard.

Friday evening, Lerner will be hosting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 35th anniversary screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, which features a new digital cinema presentation with the original Quintaphonic soundtrack. “Tommy” was the only film ever produced in that stereophonic sound system.

Russell, who is now 82, may be known for his excessive hand on screen, but he’s a man of few words when reached over the phone in England about the event. Lerner will be discussing the film with the veteran filmmaker.

When asked to explain Quintaphonic, Russell simply replied, “It was a new kind of stereo. It was rather unique.”

On how he came up with the way to shoot a rock opera: “I discovered how to shoot it. It was fairly easy.”

The Who’s Townshend, who received an Oscar nomination for scoring and adapting the music for the film, was much more reflective in an e-mail interview:

Was it your decision to bring “Tommy” to the screen? How did you select Ken Russell?

For years I was against doing “Tommy” as a film. I felt a film would reduce the impact of the music and make demands of the story to which it could never rise. During the composition and recording of [the Who’s album] “Quadrophenia” that took place during a very busy 1973, there were a number of meetings about a possible film of “Tommy” attended by Chris Stamp and myself. Chris was with Kit Lambert, our first manager. Kit Lambert had sketched out a film treatment even while we were recording the original album, which he produced, and he was hoping to direct.

But by 1973, he was in very bad shape physically and emotionally. To begin with, our talks were with Michael Carreras of the Hammer film family. Then Robert Stigwood entered the fray. I was relieved because I knew he adored and respected Kit Lambert and would treat his dismissal as director as tenderly as possible. The first I knew that Ken Russell was on board was meeting him in Wardour Street while recording sound effects for “Quadrophenia” and his directorial role on “Tommy” seemed a done deal.

What was your and the rest of the cast’s relationship with Russell?

Ken was bombastic, energetic, funny, tireless and inspiring. He had an obsessive eye for detail and planning that I now realize every great film director needs, or in its place the absolute certainty that they can accept what happens when it happens and adapt to it. I never had a bad moment with Ken. During the “Tommy” film, he only ever slept for about four hours. I survived on cognac. I have no idea how he stayed awake. When we filmed our own sequences as the Who band, I simply behaved like the arrogant half-drunk rock star I was at the time and entirely got my way.

People, including Murray Lerner who is hosting the “Tommy” event, said watching the rock opera live was akin to a religious experience. Do you feel the film captured that feeling?

The original “Tommy” album was intended by me — from a composer’s standpoint — to provide the Who with a powerful live piece that would extend what I had done for the band with “A Quick One While He’s Away” — my first mini-opera. My interest in the Indian master Avatar Meher Baba and a fair bit of reading by Sufi authors and mystics at the time of the writing inspired me to try to create a musical piece that provided a spiritual travelogue through the so-called “planes” of consciousness. My deaf-dumb-and-blind hero was a cipher for those of us who are unaware of our spiritual life, either by choice or ignorance. Not much of this spiritual substance found its way into the Who’s finished album. However, enough landed to ensure when we performed it live, songs or sequences like “I’m Free” and “See Me, Feel Me” and “Listening to You” jacked into the trend of the time for young people to see themselves as seekers.

The film dealt with the notion of a young man’s search for truth and meaning in a more sociological way than the Who’s album .… The film illustrated the times very literally and with great affection. The Who performed “Tommy” so many times after its release as an album that we became conditioned to its power to inspire spiritual feeling. Ken simply let the music deal with the spiritual task.

Would you discuss the casting of the film, which includes such Russell veterans as Oliver Reed but such Hollywood types as Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson?

There is where I hang my head in shame. I initially disagreed with all three of these choices. My arguments were with both Ken and Robert Stigwood. Robert was the most persuasive, explaining the Hollywood star system to me in words of one syllable: “We have to have them.” In the end, Oliver Reed did his comedic thing and it worked out extraordinarily well, with me coaching him line by torturous line in the studio, knocking back mugs of Remy Martin cognac. I was a little frightened of him at first but quickly realized he was a really wonderful man.

Jack sang beautifully …. Ann-Margret I knew nothing about and thought her voice was too old-school, too music-theater for “Tommy.” But she too convinced me immediately as soon as we started to record.

Elton John, Tina Turner and Eric Clapton were of course easier for me to work with. Elton was already stupidly rich, arriving in a massive Rolls Royce like the queen’s and with his own number plate. He is always a joy to work with. Eric was fresh from heroin addiction, just drinking beer and chasing after Ann-Margret even though her husband and manager was always by her side.

Roger worked really hard. I was deeply impressed by his professionalism as an actor. He seemed to be a natural. It was through performing in the role of Tommy with the Who that Roger discovered his ability to be a true frontman in a rock band. He almost invented the pseudo-messianic role taken up later by Jim Morrison and Robert Plant.