The movie Tommy debuted on March 19, 1975, setting the world ablaze as madman filmmaker Ken Russell transformed the Who’s 1969 rock opera into one of cinema’s all-time most audacious and incendiary trips of sight, sound, and fury.
In honor of Tommy’s 40th anniversary, then, let’s take a look back at the Who’s other contributions to film history, be it in the form of documentaries, concert movies, or performances by each individual band member—well, all except bassist John Entwistle who, aside from voicing himself on The Simpsons, never seemed to get bitten by the acting bug (perhaps Boris the Spider ate it in Ox’s case).
The Who in Finland (1967)
Technically titled The Who Suomessa, the sixteen-minute concert short The Who in Finland delivers what the title promises. Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle deboard an airplane in Helsinki, press a bit of flesh with the locals, answer some questions, and then tear through “Substitute” and “My Generation.” Who you see is Who you get.
Monterey Pop (1968)
Monterey Pop is master documentarian D.A. Pennebaker’s chronicle of the legendary 1967 California music festival of the same name that ignited the flower power music movement that would flourish at Woodstock and then get torn out by the roots at Altamont.
Containing once-in-a-lifetime performances by Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas, Otis Redding, Simon and Garfunkel, and more, the movie is most famous for its unforgettable footage of Jimi Hendrix blowing minds and setting his guitar ablaze, as well as a particularly over-the-top rendition of “My Generation” by the Who.
Sandwiched between Eric Burdon & the Animals and Country Joe & the Fish, the Who bombard the stage with maximum impact and abandon, culminating with smoke bombs, Keith Moon kicking his drum kit to pieces, and Pete Townshend’s smashing his guitar to psychedelic smithereens. Later, the Who would be famous for its displays of instrument demolition; as a cultural watershed moment, it starts right here.
“See Me, Feel Me”
Director Michael Wadleigh’s epic documentary of upstate New York’s generation-defining 1969 outdoor festival, Woodstock’s three-hour-plus running time is packed with twenty acts performing thirty songs.
That Richie Havens’ acoustic guitar opening packs a wallop in a class right alongside Jimi Hendrix’s history-making electric closing set is a testament to the power of Woodstock’s moment: everyone brought their A game. That would include, of course, the Who.
During a wee-hours set, the Who blow up the stage and burn down the screen with “We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me” from Tommy, followed by their combustive cover of “Summertime Blues.” The impressive manner in which the assembled half-million hippies accept such a sonic onslaught from the Who is a clear signal that heavy metal was on its way.
200 Motels (1971)
Keith Moon cameos as “The Hot Nun”
Frank Zappa’s visionary phantasmagoria 200 Motels arose from his sheer fatigue from touring with the Mothers of Invention, as well as the revelation, following one stop after another, that the world out there is even weirder than we can possibly imagine. 200 Motels does an astonishing job of translating those notions to a mesmerizing cinematic experience.
Shot on video and awash with primitive visual effects for a freaky psychedelic look, 200 Motels features Ringo Starr portraying Zappa; Zappa himself leading the Mothers in concert alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra; Austrian actor and folksinger Theodore Bikel as a menacing master of ceremonies (sort of); and, in a role whose very name defines it, Who drummer Keith Moon as “The Hot Nun.”
That’ll Be the Day (1973) and Stardust (1974)
Keith Moon in That’ll Be the Day
That’ll Be the Day is a late-1950s set British coming of age story about Jim MacLaine, a youth ditches college for a shot at the rock-and-roll big time. David Essex, the 1970s UK pop star best known for the oddball radio hit “Rock On,”, portrays the lead. Ringo Starr plays his roughneck best friend. The Who’s Keith Moon proves deeply effective in the role of a drum-pounding greaser.
Keith Moon also returns in the 1974 sequel, Stardust, in which Jim MacLaine finally achieves his rock star dreams. They turn out, of course, to be a nightmare.
Keith Moon in Stardust
Just as the Who’s 1967 concept album Tommy drew a before-and-after line in music history, wildman director Ken Russell’s big-screen adaptation of the record is just as powerful and hard-rocking in the realms of midnight movies, surrealistic visual arts, and teenage rite-of-passage cinema.
Who frontman Roger Daltrey stars in the title role as that deaf, dumb, blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball. Keith Moon brings flesh-crawling comical creepiness as Tommy’s Uncle Ernie who just loves to “fiddle about” with his incapable-of-tattling nephew. Pete Townshend and John Entwistle cameo as musicians during live performance scenes.
Other rockers round out the cast quite spectacularly, chief among them Elton John as the Pinball Wizard who wears four-foot-tall Doc Martens boots, and Tina Turner as the equally terrifying and alluring Gypsy, the Acid Queen. Tommy also has fun with its clergy roles, casting Eric Clapton as The Preacher and proto-metal madman Arthur Brown as The Priest.
Hot on the heels of their Tommy triumph, director Ken Russell and star Roger Daltrey teamed again for Lisztomania, an acid-blasted biopic based on proto-rock-star classical composer Franz Liszt. The end result is… not Tommy.
Lisztomania is, however, a bizarre trip well worth taking. Daltrey-as-Liszt visits Hell, where a gaggle of she-demons lug him through the flames by his ten-foot-long lower-frontal appendage. Rick Wakeman of Yes not only composed the movie’s score, he appears as Thor, the Norse god of Thunder. Ringo Starr cameos as the pope. Liszt’s rival composer, Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) is a vampire who returns from the dead as a combination of Frankenstein and Hitler, brandishing a combination machine gun and guitar.
The ’70s really were something else, weren’t they?
Keith Moon in Sextette
Few films genuinely warrant the description “one-of-a-kind.” Sextette makes the cut. It’s the final film of silver screen legend Mae West who, at age 84 (and possibly even older), stars as Marlo Manners, a parody version of her classic Hollywood persona as a lust-fueled sexbomb who drives all comers wild with desire.
The title Sextette refers to Marlo’s six husbands who include Ringo Starr as a despotic Italian movie director, Tony Curtis as a pent-up Soviet politician, and future James Bond star Timothy Dalton as her dashing young prince with who she duets on the most bizarre conceivable version of the Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
In addition to Alice Cooper’s cameo as a piano-playing bellboy who pounds out a disco number, Who drummer Keith Moon lights the screen ablaze as Mae West’s flamingly flamboyant hairdresser. He, like the rest of the movie, is off-the-rails hilarious.
The Who’s other major rock opera, 1973’s Quadrophenia, differs from the fantastical surrealism of Tommy in that it tells the straightforward story of a restless and depressed young man in 1964 London at the time of the Mods vs. Rockers unrest.
The movie versions of each record follow suit: whereas Tommy is all Ken Russell’s brilliant visual fireworks and electrifying musical performances, Quadrophenia, directed by Franc Roddam, is cold, hard, and realistic, and, to be sure, no one breaks into song.
Still, this moving tale of a young Mod named Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels) makes proves to be profoundly moving and even inspiring. Small, terribly credible moments hammer the emotions home, such as a Mod kid suffering a severe beating at the hands of Rockers, the hero’s ascending addiction to amphetamine pills, and his subsequent desperate attempts to do anything just to feel alive. Remarkably, then, the overall bummer air of Quadrophenia does manage to end on an up note.
The Kids Are Alright (1979)
In 1975, Who fan Jeff Stein sold Pete Townshend on the prospect of a feature-length film that would assemble existing footage of the band into a cohesive historic chronicle. It was a great idea, for sure, until it was revealed that Stein had zero background in making movies. Regardless, his love of the Who carried him through and the final product, The Kids Are Alright, stands as one of the all-time great rockumentaries. Whew!
The Legacy (1979)
The glossy fright flick The Legacy stars Sam Elliot and Katherine Ross as interior decorators (of all things) summoned to England for a big job at a country estate. Immediately, mysterious deaths begin cropping up all around them. Among the most notable (and unintentionally funny) demises is Roger Daltrey’s. The Who frontman plays a record executive who chokes to death on a chicken bone—even though he was eating ham.
White City: The Music Movie (1985)
Pete Townshend stars in an adaptation of his solo concept album, White City: A Novel, which generated the smash hit, “Face the Face.” The plot of both the record and the hour-long movie follows various interconnected lives among residents of a down-and-out apartment complex. Townshend plays a version of himself, a rock star called Pete Fountain, who returns to the old neighborhood to visit a pal. Nobody’s happy.
Mack the Knife (1989)
Roger Daltrey in Mack the Knife
Roger Daltrey co-stars in an adaptation of the dark stage musical classic The Threepenny Opera as “The Street Singer.” He’s a wandering minstrel whose songs introduce characters and comment on the action with engaging, menacing high style.
Set among the criminal class of 19th London, The Threepenny Opera’s anti-hero is Macheath, the city’s most notorious, feared, and perversely admired assassin, thief, arsonist, and all-around bad egg who goes by the nickname “Mack the Knife.” Daltrey opens the movie by singing the famous theme song of the same name.
The direct-to-video Vampirella brings to life the titular 1970s sexy comic book character with all the flair and style that exploitation producer Roger Corman was willing to pay for (i.e., not much).
It’s a fun rid anyway, with gorgeous Talisa Soto in the lead and Roger Daltrey having a hoot as Vlad, the movie’s villain who hails from the planet Drakulon. After killing Vampirella’s father on Drakulon, Vlad blasts off for earth to become a rock star. Clad in her skimpiest red vinyl outfit, Vampirella immediately gives chase and the dumb B-movie fun takes flight from there.
Listening to You: The Who Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (1998)
Listening to You puts together footage of the Who’s legendary blowout at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. According to popular rock lore, that show may figure as the group’s finest performance. Watching this concert film, it’s not easy to argue against that sentiment.
The movie’s opening set features barn-burning takes on “Heaven and Hell,” “I Can’t Explain,” “Summertime Blues,” “Magic Bus,” and “My Generation.” It’s a knockout run of songs that sets up the band’s full live performance of Tommy. How the island managed to stay afloat under the stress of all that sheer rock force remains a mystery to this day.
Mike “McBeardo” McPadden is the author of Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever! (Bazillion Points).