The Album of Tommy was released in 1969, and told the story of a young boy who witnessed the murder of his mother's lover by his father, after his father returned home from World War I.
Ken Russell's 1974 movie version differs from the album, moving the setting to 1951, and World War II, rather than World War I, and having Tommy's father be killed in the beginning of the story, rather than his mother's lover.
In the movie, Mrs. Walker's RAF husband was shot down in the war, so "his unborn child will never know him." Young Tommy sees his widowed mother (Ann-Margaret) carrying on with Uncle Frank at Bernie's Holiday Camp.
In the movie's paradigmatic scene, Tommy is visited at bedtime by the spectre of his father. He follows him out of his bedroom and sees him confront his mother and her lover (who knocks out Tommy's father with a lamp). Drenched in the sweat of their passion, Tommy's mother sings,
- What about the boy? What about the boy?
- What about the boy? He saw it all!
Frank and Mom sing, "You didn't see it; you didn't hear it . . . How absurd it all seems without any proof ... You won't say nothing to no one [about] what you know is the truth!"
Tommy becomes hysterically deaf, dumb and blind. "The guilty are safe but always accused by his empty eyes," while Tommy daydreams about being back with his father again. "The truth shines so bright it can melt winter snow."
At the Christmas party, while the other children rejoice in Heaven's generosity, Tommy "doesn't know who Jesus was or what praying is."
- Tommy, can you hear me?
- "See me. Feel me. Touch me. Heal me."
- How can he be saved?
His mother gave him a Nativity scene for Christmas, but he rejects it.
When he grows up (played by The Who's Roger Daltrey), his mother brings him to a cult who worship Marilyn Monroe, a "woman who can bring eyesight to the blind". The perverse ritual centers on rock and roll, sexuality and whiskey.
His stepfather Frank takes him to "the gypsy, the Acid Queen ... I'll tear your soul apart" (Tina Turner) who places frightened Tommy inside an iron maiden which injects him with drugs. Tommy becomes his father, then Christ, then a skeleton infested by snakes, before returning to himself and tumbling out.
One night, Tommy is left with his cousin Kevin, the school bully, the classroom cheat, who (in what may only be vivid fantasy) tortures him because he "has no one to play with today". Another night, he's left with his "wicked Uncle Ernie" who in an ambiguous blacked out sequence (possibly) rapes Tommy.
The famous Underture provides the musical setting for a scene in which Tommy gropes through a junkyard and finds a pinball machine: Gottlieb's "Kings & Queens".
The song "Extra" is converted from miracle cure to pinball championship, as a neat transition to the movie's most famous song.
We see Elton John playing a 4-octave plastic keyboard attached to a pinball machine. At first we see only his hands and hairy forearms, but with a sparkling motley shirt, oversized round polkadot glasses and a two tone wool cap topped with a silver sphere he is clearly the reigning Pinball Champ. As the camera dollies out, we see his huge feet under trouser-clad stilts. In this rewrite of the classic song, the champ is a sore loser; he doesn't want Tommy to become the new "table king". As the song ends, he topples from his machine and is carried out through the booing audience. Tommy gets his pinball crown.
Ann-Margaret now showcases her (meagre?) talents in the notorious "baked beans" episode in an all white bedroom furnished with a spherical chair, spherical lamp, and a round bed with round pillows. Although her son's pinball wizardry has made her a rich woman, she wishes she could "drive his blight from her mind". When she throws her liquor bottle at the TV, out comes suds, baked beans and chocolate (in her fantasy). The movie may have been rated PG, but this scene is an R for sheer raunch.
Frank finds a doctor (a 38-year-old Jack Nicholson) who can cure the boy. The leering doctor says there's nothing *he* can do, while making a pass at his mother.
- Do you hear or fear or
- Do I smash the mirror?
She throws Tommy against the mirror into which he had often gazed and (like Alice) he goes thru it. He falls into a pool and ...
- I'm free. I'm free!
- And freedom tastes of reality.
Cult leader Tommy
Tommy runs through a forest (with combat imagery) and a beach, where he's "waiting for you to follow me" (a new Messiah). He strips the jewels from her and 'baptizes' her in the surf.
In "Sally Simpson", a teenybopper ignores her preacher father to sneak off to watch Tommy lead a meeting of his new cult and gets a lurid gash across her cheek for her trouble.
Clashing motorcycle gangs stare up as Tommy descends from the sky in a hang glider ("I'm a Sensation").
But in the end it turns into a money-grubbing operation where you "buy your way into Heaven". Participants wear eyeshades, earplugs and "you know where to put the cork".
In "We're Not Gonna Take it", the rebellious disciples smash the pinball machines, stab Frank and kick Tommy in the head. "We foresake you / gonna rape you / let's forget you better still."
Tommy's mother is killed, the camp is engulfed in flames as the band reprises "Listening to You / See Me". In what may be a return from the spurious religion Tommy had created, he is free to truly follow God.
- Listening to you
- I climb the mountain
- I get excitement at your feet
In the stage show, as in the movie, Mrs. Walker's husband is a World War II RAF pilot, however in the musical, he is not shot down but MIA, presumed dead, leading Mrs. Walker into an unknowingly adulterous relationship with an unnamed man. When Tommy's father returns home and catches them together he kills his wife's new lover in a fit of rage, and Tommy witnesses it via a reflection in a full length mirror in the living room. Realizing that the murder was witnessed by Tommy, his parents insist "You didn't hear it, you didn't see it. You won't say nothing to no one Ever in your life..." and Tommy takes those words to heart, becoming psychosomatically deaf, dumb and blind.
What follows is a musical number, sung by a man garbed in silvery robes who tells us how Tommy now experiences the world in colors and music, without truly perceiving the world around him. The trial of Tommy's father on murder charges is shown and his father was acquitted. We then see Tommy examined by a series of doctors, as his parents realize the damage they caused him, and try to have him cured. during this sequence the child actor playing 4 year old Tommy, is replaced with an adolescent, playing 10 year old Tommy.
At Christmas, the family gather and rejoice, but Tommy remains as silent and unresponsive as ever, leading his parents to worry for his soul, since he cannot be taught about God if they cannot get thru to him.
- And Tommy doesn't know what day it is.
- He doesn't know who Jesus was or what praying is.
- How can he be saved from the eternal grave?
Tommy is instead drawn to where the man in silvery robes is shown in what is now revealed to be a two way mirror.
At home, Tommy's parents wonder if it OK to leave Tommy with his Uncle Ernie, who's been drinking, but decide that it will probably be fine. They are mistaken, as Ernie proceeds to abuse Tommy in their absence, safe in the knowledge that he can tell no one what has happened. They fare no better with their next babysitter, Tommy's cousin Kevin, who taunts him with a litany of the things he could do to the boy and get away with it, but it is also Kevin who first introduces Tommy to Pinball, which garners a reaction that gives the family hope for Tommy's recovery.
In a desperate bid to snap Tommy out of his world, they bring him to a house of ill repute, on the advice of a hawker who claims there is a woman there who can bring eyesight to the blind. Upon discovering the nature of the house, and the woman, known as Gypsy the Acid queen, his parents quickly rush him away.
Meanwhile, back at the arcade, the neighborhood kids all await the return of the Pinball wizard.
At the top of Act 2, the young adolescent playing Tommy has been replaced with none other than the man in silvery robes, divested of said garments, who is revealed to be a grown Tommy. His parents take him to yet another series of doctors, but he still responds only to Pinball, and to the mirror, which now reflects his 10 year old self back at him. Finally, Mrs. Walker becomes so fed up with Tommy's inability to perceive her, that she smashes the mirror in the process freeing him from his mental prison.
Tommy becomes a celebrity as his "miracle" cure becomes widely known, and he gains a following of young people. He rejects his family, blaming them for trapping him in a prison of his own mind, and instead embraces his followers. Trying to cash in on his nephew's popularity Uncle Ernie opens a "Holiday Camp" pro porting to help people become as liberated as Tommy is. The camp devolves into a cult, and Sally Simpson, one of his followers, is injured. Realizing that he is helping no one, he invites Sally and his other followers back to the home of his parents.
There, they look to him for guidance, but he refuses to give any, knowing that he has nothing to offer them. They do not like his answer however, as they were looking for a messianic figure. Tommy's followers reject him, leaving him at home with only his family. He appears for a moment too be returning to his introverted state, but realizes that he did not need his followers, only his family, and embraces them.