Blu-ray Review: Sensation -- The Story of Tommy

Documentary pays tribute to The Who's classic rock opera.
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By 1969, Pete Townshend was facing a bit of an identity crisis. The Who had been a successful singles band during the 1960s, but the band was caught between the heavy, psychedelic style of their masterpiece, "I Can See For Miles" and the R&B throwback of "Magic Bus." A bad acid trip, where Townshend had an out of body experience, led to him wanting to take both his life and his music more seriously.

The band had flirted with the idea of a rock opera in the past with tracks such as "Rael" and "A Quick One, While He's Away," but Tommy was to be different, a full-fledged album. It was to be a turning point for the band. The Tommy album and tour made the band superstars, especially in the United States and marked a change from a singles band to a more album-oriented one. Originally aired by the BBC in 2013, Sensation -- The Story Of Tommy pays tribute to this landmark album, including footage not originally broadcast.

As Sensation points out, Tommy was not the band's first rock opera, nor would it be its last with Quadrophenia a few years away. Other artists, such as Mark Wirtz and The Pretty Things also had rock operas around this time, but of all of them, Tommy is arguably still the most influential. Townshend's post-trip maturation coincided with his introduction to the teachings of Meher Baba and this led to Tommy being the first time they attempted an album as a piece of art. Townshend's newfound spirituality led him to writing Tommy as a spiritual story and what happens when spiritual power is misused. The character Tommy, after witnessing a murder in a mirror, retreats into himself, becoming "deaf, dumb and blind." He discovers that he can play pinball through vibrations, becoming a star player and, after his is cured, becomes something of a messianic figure to his followers, abusing his influence over them and causing them to ultimately reject him.

Sensation includes extensive interviews with Townshend and Roger Daltrey and archival interviews with John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Townshend points out that a lot of Tommy is based on his own life, with his parents not having a close marriage and his belief that his relatives abused him as a child. Not wanting to revisit those feelings, Townshend had Entwistle compose "Cousin Kevin" and "Fiddle About," two songs that deal with abuse and bullying, for the album. Also interviewed for the documentary is cover artist, Kevin McInnerney, whom we learn was a close creative confidant of Townshend's during the album's recording, often hearing new demos before the band. Townshend essentially pitched the album to Rolling Stone in an interview before it was recorded, which Rolling Stone chief Jann Wenner recalls in great detail here. Sprinkled throughout the documentary are a number of live performance clips from the album, showcasing The Who's strength as a live band and how much more powerful this material sounds in concert.

The Blu-ray is presented in 1080i High Definition Widescreen 16:9 (1.78:1) with archival clips thankfully retaining their original 4:3 aspect ratio. Audio options include LPCM Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio. A half-hour appearance on the German TV show Beat Club from 1969 is included as a bonus feature, showcasing performances from the album and an interview with Townshend. This footage looks great and is worth the price of the Blu-ray in and of itself.

1969 marked a change to a heavier, album-rock oriented Who, a course the band would follow throughout the rest of its career. Tommy can be viewed as the beginning of phase two of the band's career and Sensation -- The Story of Tommy is an excellent look at this important release.