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Rhino presents
The Who: Tommy Live, with Special Guests (1989)

"Sickness will surely take the mind where minds can't usually go. Come on the amazing journey, and learn all you should know."
- Roger Daltrey

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: September 14, 2006

Stars: Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshed, John Entwistle
Other Stars: Phil Collins, Billy Idol, Elton John, Patti LaBelle, Steve Winwood
Director: Larry Jordan

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (thematic material, language)
Run Time: 01h:02m:21s
Release Date: June 06, 2006
UPC: 603497163625
Genre: rock


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- AB-A- B

DVD Review

Armchair musical psychologists long have theorized that Beethoven's later music was profoundly influenced by his deafness. As he became more and more shut off from the outside world, he necessarily became more introspective and took his music to new and different places, as well as heightening his sense of the spiritual. That notion is taken two steps farther by Pete Townshend of The Who in his seminal rock opera, Tommy, as his protagonist is not only deaf but blind and unable to speak as well. Initially released as a concept album, then made into a film by Ken Russell, Tommy has proven quite resilient over the years. This DVD records a 1989 live performance by The Who (and special guests) at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, as part of the band's 25th anniversary tour.

The familiar storyline concerns young Tommy Walker, traumatized by the death of his father under suspicious circumstances. Told he didn't see or hear anything, and that he won't say anything to anyone, Tommy takes this advice to heart and retreats into a completely unresponsive autistic shell. His well-meaning mother submits him to experimentation by The Acid Queen (Patti LaBelle) and leaves him to the devices of bullying Cousin Kevin (Billy Idol) and perverted Uncle Ernie (Phil Collins). In the process, Tommy becomes a pinball champion and eventually a messianic figure embraced by the masses and just as quickly discarded.

The music still holds up exceedingly well, with a wide range of moods on display. Lead vocalist Roger Daltrey's voice was beginning to go at this point in 1989; the once-formidable high register was pretty much hit and miss but there was still a vibrant tunefulness to it; a few years later the range would diminish to just about nothing but he's not there yet. The chops of Townshend and bassist John Entwistle are sharp as ever, and it's a joy to see them still so enthusiastic after 25 years. A sizable backup troupe, including horn sections, percussion, and yes backup singers to help with the upper registers, give the sound a pleasing texture that both recreates the sound of the album and diverges from it in significant ways.

The biggest divergence is in the use of the guest singers to take on several of the characters. I'm still somewhat ambivalent about this notion, while Daltrey on the commentary is downright resentful of it. LaBelle definitely makes an impression, however, starting off mimicking Tina Turner's inflections from her cinematic portrayal of The Acid Queen, but quickly making the part her own. Her scat counterpoint in the group finale is simply marvelous to listen to, and it makes the familiar final chorus, Listening to You, far more vibrant and lively than I've ever heard it before. Steve Winwood is letter-perfect as The Hawker singing Eyesight to the Blind, and Elton John reprises his famous turn as The Pinball Wizard (though sans the outlandish costume from the movie, leaving that to LaBelle and Collins). Billy Idol is humorous as wicked Cousin Kevin, using his image as a bad boy to the hilt, and Phil Collins goes completely over the top (perhaps in tribute to master of excess Keith Moon) as Uncle Ernie. Even though I have no use for Collins ordinarily, he's quite funny here and obviously having a great time with a memorable part.

Without the linearity of Ken Russell's storyline, the narrative thread tends to drift a bit (though Townshend indicates that was quite intentional). The finale is a complex array of emotions and motivations that has a richness beneath its deceptively simple appearance. The crowd wants to find enlightenment just as Tommy has done, and he, with the best of intentions, tries to show them the way. But he is a messiah with feet of clay, for the only way he knows is the one he followed; rather than acknowledging that this is an intensely personal journey, he has them put on eyeshades, earplugs and a cork to artificially mimic his experiences. As one might expect, the crowd in We're Not Gonna Take It refuses, not because of any a priori knowledge that they must find their own way, but as a result of sheer laziness and refusal to take a Dostoevskian approach to redemption through suffering. At cross purposes with each other, the movement can only end in disaster, as is the case with so many would-be messiahs.

The staging is somewhat unimaginative, but there were apparently scenes being shown on large backdrops that we very seldom get to see. The show cuts off with Daltrey's promise that they will return with more, but the balance of the show is not present here. The running time is only half of the promised 135 minutes; apparently Rhino is counting the commentary as part of the running time. Still relevant over 35 years later, Tommy is flawed, but it's a flawed classic, and this is an excellent if unusual rendition.

Songs performed:

Overture
It's A Boy
1921
Amazing Journey
Sparks
Eyesight To The Blind
Christmas
Cousin Kevin
The Acid Queen
Pinball Wizard
Do You Think It's Alright?
Fiddle About
There's A Doctor
Go To The Mirror!
Smash The Mirror
Tommy Can You Hear Me?
I'm Free
Extra Extra / Miracle Cure
Sally Simpson
Sensation
Tommy's Holiday Camp
We're Not Gonna Take It

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The full-frame picture is quite soft throughout, betraying evidence of having been shot on video. However, I didn't notice any dropouts or any significant video noise. The colors are quite vivid, especially for a live performance; in particular the gel lights look marvelous. Black levels are reasonably good for a stage performance. I didn't notice any edge enhancmenet, macroblocking or other digital artifacts, so if the softness of the original doesn't bother you, then it looks about as good as it possibly can.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Both 5.1 and Dolby Surround tracks are provided. While the 5.1 track is more open and expansive (not to mention somewhat louder), I found myself rather preferring the original Dolby Surround version. Individual instruments, especially Entwistle's bass, seem to be better differentiated in that mix. However, both are at significantly loud levels when played at reference. Deep bass is rather surprisingly missing. Noise and extraneous hiss are not noticeable.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 22 cues and remote access
2 Multiple Angles with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend
Packaging: clear plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h31m:05s

Extra Extras:
  1. Gallery
Extras Review: The principal extra is a "visual commentary" by Townshend and Daltrey (recorded separately), which uses the alternate angle feature of DVD to excellent effect. It's readily accessible at any time without leaving the main program, which is a nice touch. They provide a solid background in the genesis of the rock opera, the 1989 tour and their experiences and associations with Tommy. There is one editing glitch; a short segment of Daltrey's comments appears twice in the program. That aside, it's an invaluable look inside the band that any Who fan will want to check out. The other extra is a gallery of stills and artwork from various renditions and performances of Tommy over the years, set to the Overture. Keith Moon oddly appears only in one small group photo, which seems disrespectful given how vivid his portrayals of Uncle Ernie were over the years and his role in the band.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

A solid performance of a bona fide rock classic, with some great guest performances. The commentary is excellent and highly recommended for fans of this rock opera.

 


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