Tommy

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Listening to you I get the music, gazing at you I get the heat
Following you I climb the mountain, I get excitement at your feet
Right behind you I see the millions, on you I see the glory
From you I get opinions, from you I get the story

—Tommy, "Listening To You" (and "Go to the Mirror!")

A Rock Opera by The Who. Their best-known and most influential album, its 1969 release introduced the world to the concept of Rock Opera, made the Who into a household name in Britain and the US, and propelled what had previously been a little-known Mod band into the annals of rock history.

Born at the end of WWI (WWII in the movie and Broadway versions) to a war widow, Tommy Walker is an ordinary child growing up in postwar Britain until his father, Back from the Dead, comes home, finds his wife with her new lover, and kills him in self-defense before Tommy's eyes (in the Broadway version; the movie version has the new lover kill the husband in self-defense, and the album itself leaves the nature of the event deliberately ambiguous) while Tommy witnesses it all in a mirror. Traumatized by the experience, and his parents' exhortation that "You didn't hear it, you didn't see it, you won't say nothing to no one ever in your life", Tommy is struck deaf, dumb (i.e. mute), and blind.

As Tommy grows from a boy to a young man, his disability leaves him despised by his peers, and even his own family turns against him -- he's beaten and tortured by his cousin, molested by his uncle, and his parents consider institutionalizing him. The only things keeping Tommy sane are his memories and his "visions" -- a sensation of a spirit guide showing him the true nature of the universe, which eventually manifests itself, as far as Tommy is concerned, in the most mundane of leisure activities -- Pinball. He becomes a "Pinball Wizard"; even though he cannot see the machine nor hear it, he can feel the vibrations of the table under his hands, which enables him to outplay and outscore anyone. He develops a Fandom because of this; his celebrity making his family rich and famous.

Eventually, he gains, or regains, his senses after a cathartic moment in which the mirror in which he glimpsed the original murder is smashed. Free to speak for himself, Tommy becomes a spiritual leader to the fans he's gained through his pinball, and seeks to create a new religion to teach the world about the revelations he acquired during his blindness. Tommy gradually discovers that his disciples are more interested in a quick fix than spiritual enlightenment; he warns them that they can't follow him through drinking, getting high, or dropping acid, and when they beg him to give them some kind of easy spiritual key he forces them to play pinball while wearing blindfolds and earplugs. In the end, the masses rebuke and abandon him, and the only people left to stand by Tommy are the dysfunctional family he was having trouble with in the beginning.

It's Better Than It Sounds. And of course, being something that delivers plot through music, you have to make some allowances, and read into it in some places. That said, it has more continuity than many examples of Rock Opera, and has a very definite plot arc embedded in the catchy tunes. The story is heavily inspired by Pete Townshend's then-recent conversion to the teachings of Meher Baba and his subsequent rejection of psychedelic drugs, a theme he would continue to explore in later albums.

In addition to the original LP and several live recordings by the Who, a number of adaptations have been produced, including:

  • A 1972 recording by the London Symphony Orchestra, with members of the Who singing various parts along with other vocalists including Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart, and Sir Richard Harris.
  • A 1975 film directed by Ken Russell, which manages to be even more trippy and incoherent than the original album. Like the LSO recording, a number of guest musicians were featured, including Elton John (whose recording of Pinball Wizard became a radio hit), Ann-Margret as Tommy's mother Nora, Eric Clapton and Arthur Brown as the high priests of the church of Marilyn Monroe, Oliver Reed as Tommy's "Uncle Frank" Hobbs (who in this version kills Tommy's father rather than the other way around), and Jack Nicholson, in his only singing role, as Tommy's doctor. Lighter and Softer than the album, with gratuitous quantities of synthesized instrumentals and lots of Large Ham moments.
  • A 1993 Broadway musical, composed by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff. The musical changes the song order from both the album and the movie versions and takes a completely different tack in the finale -- here, it's Tommy's fans who want him to lead them to enlightenment, while Tommy believes they shouldn't put themselves through what he had to suffer, and believes that normality is the greatest gift one can have.
  • No idea when it came out (somewhere in the 70s) but the salsa record company Fania made this a Salsa Opera called Omi (pronounced Ome). The story follows the same as the original, but instead of becoming a pinball player, Omi became a conga drum master.

See also Quadrophenia, The Who's second Rock Opera.


Tropes used in Tommy include:
  • Adaptation Distillation: The 1975 movie and the 1993 stage musical. For instance, in the movie Mrs. Nora Walker's new husband is the one who murders Tommy's father, rather than the other way around, and the mysterious figure that guides Tommy during "Amazing Journey" is replaced with his (dead) dad, reducing the overall number of characters. In the stage version, on the other hand, the actor who plays the adult Tommy doubles as the spirit guide.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The movie has quite a bit of new music, and gives Nora Walker's second husband a good deal more characterization, shows more of their relationship, and even has him as an employee at a holiday camp.
    • Speaking of added details, Mrs. Walker doesn't even have a first name on the original album.
  • All of the Other Reindeer
  • Arc Words: "See me, feel me, touch me, heal me..."
  • Author Appeal: The plot and theme of the opera was heavily influenced by Townshend's conversion to the teachings of Meher Baba and his simultaneous rejection of psychedelic drugs.
  • Bittersweet Ending/Downer Ending: "Sally Simpson", and the album as a whole. Your mileage will vary.
    • In the film version of "Sally Simpson", this is averted by giving Sally an obviously fake scar, making her husband a Frankenstein's Monster lookalike, and at the end, having her shrug the whole thing off while dressed in expensive furs and jewels.
  • Blind Seer
  • Breather Episode: "Pinball Wizard". Perhaps this is part of how it became a Black Sheep Hit.
  • Brick Joke: The seemingly unrelated "Pinball Wizard" later becomes important as a path to enlightenment.
  • BSOD Song: This is what "See Me, Feel Me" becomes when reprized at the end, though it is followed by a glorious reprise of "Listening to You". It also applies to "Twenty-One" and "What About the Boy", and "Smash the Mirror".
  • Card-Carrying Villain: "I'm your wicked Uncle Ernie..." And let's not forget:

I'm the school bully
The classroom cheat
The nastiest playfriend
You ever could meet

  • Concept Album: One of the early ones.
  • Confusing Multiple Negatives: In "1921": "You didn't hear it, you didn't see it, you won't say nothing to no one ever in your life."
  • Cover Version: "Eyesight to the Blind" was originally by Sonny Boy Williamson II. Though it's rather interesting how it still fits into the plot so well.
    • The Cover Changes the Meaning: In both the album and the 1993 musical, a pimp who calls himself a "hawker" (i.e., a peddler) says that there is a prostitute of his (eventually the Acid Queen/Gypsy) whose sexual prowess can heal Tommy. In the 1975 film, however, the Hawker is replaced by a preacher and a priest of a "religious" cult of Marilyn Monroe who claims that her movie-acting fame, sexual prowess, and "saintly" nature can cure Tommy on the touch of her idol statue (even though she is dead).
  • Creepy Uncle: Uncle Ernie, an alcoholic pedophile. Even creepier is that, aside from his number "Fiddle About", the part is usually played as dark comic relief, with the 1975 and 1993 versions. (The movie in particular, as it casts Keith Moon as Ernie and he spends his entire time on camera completely hamming it up. Credit must also be given to Ringo Starr, who similarly hammed it up as Ernie in the London Symphony Orchestra recording.)
  • Cue the Sun: During the band's performance at Woodstock, the climactic moment of See Me, Feel Me happened to coincide precisely with the morning sun breaching the horizon. The group had a lighting rig (then a rarity) constructed to replicate this effect for later performances.
  • Death by Adaptation: Captain Walker in the 1975 film adaptation. Also Nora Walker (Tommy's mother) at the end of the film.
  • Disability Superpower: One interpretation is that Tommy can feel things as music, hence the Rock Opera part.
  • Disney Acid Sequence: Most of the movie, especially the Acid Queen's scene. And it isn't a good trip...
  • Disposable Fiance/Asshole Victim: In the 1993 musical, the boyfriend talks about getting married with Tommy's mother. However, when her husband comes back home from the war, the mother feels surprised and relieved that he's alive after all, and the boyfriend soon becomes a Jerkass by acting hostile toward Tommy's parents and attempting to kill the father. Fortunately, the father disposes of him by shooting him dead in the struggle.
  • Dysfunction Junction
  • Epic Instrumental Opener
  • Evil Laugh: There's some in "Tommy's Holiday Camp" on the Live at Leeds version.
  • Evil Uncle: Ernie. He molests Tommy, and then exploits his cure, and later his fame, as well as his fans.
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: In "Miracle Cure", and in (what else?) "Extra Extra" from the 1975 film adaptation.
  • Fan Disillusionment: In-universe.
  • Fandom: Has one in-universe and something of one in Real Life.
  • Foreshadowing: "Go to the Mirror!" (see Hilarious in Hindsight). Also interesting is "Overture" (the first track) which foreshadows the rest of the album by containing all the most important riffs.
    • There's also a bit of it in The Movie with the holiday camp near the beginning.
  • Heroic BSOD: The whole point of the story. It's about a boy who is traumatized and checks out for most of his life. When he wakes up he continues to act in a way that suggests that he is still not fully connected to reality.
  • Hollywood Tone Deaf: In the film version, Keith Moon's Uncle Ernie tone-deaf "singing" sounds as if he talks like a West Country pirate.
  • Hot Mom: Nora, in the film. Comes with the territory of being played by Ann-Margret. Especially during "Champagne". Ooh-la-la, you're telling me she has a son in his twenties?
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Actually played with quite interestingly. He's so inspirationally disadvantaged that an entire religion forms around him, and he has a legion of followers who want to be just like him. It turns sour when they realize that to be just like him and learn all he's learned they would first have to suffer just like him. After that they... Well, they aren't too happy. Played in an inverted fashion in the stage version, where Tommy's followers want to be like him, but he doesn't want them to; his ridiculous requirements of them are played more obviously as a (successful) attempt to turn them off.
  • Ironic Birthday: Inverted in the 1993 musical: As 4-year-old Tommy, his mother, and her new lover celebrate her 21st birthday, her presumed-dead husband arrives and breaks up by engaging in a fight between him and the boyfriend that soon leaves the boyfriend dead... all the while the mother tries turning Tommy away from the fight toward the mirror... with which he witnesses said fight by looking at it, after which the parents soon get surprised by what they see before the father gets arrested. Whoops!
  • Kids Are Cruel: Cousin Kevin.

Do you know how to play hide and seek?
To find me it would take you a week
But tied to that chair you won't go anywhere
There's a lot I can do to a freak

    • And after that the song turns into him listing all the assorted things he could do (is doing?) to Tommy (burning his arm with a cigarette and dunking his head underwater (and spraying him with a fire hose outside from upstairs in the film version), among others).
      • Songwriter John Entwistle was inspired by his childhood experiences with a bullying neighbor kid, with whom his parents inexplicably left him on a regular basis (John eventually beat up the bully when he realized he'd grown tall enough to look the other kid in the eye).
  • Large Ham: This shows up a lot in every version except the original album.
  • Leitmotif: In the form of Recurring Riffs, appropriately enough for a Rock Opera.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: More subtlety in most cases, but it's there.
  • Messianic Archetype: Played with; Tommy is convinced that his experiences gained from his self-imposed exile from reality have given him some sort of spiritual insight into reality and gathers a small cult about him. His family tries to make money off of his cult, and his followers largely miss the point and ultimately reject his message.
  • Minor Character, Major Song: "Pinball Wizard" is a popular song that gets talked about a lot, but you'd be lucky to find someone outside of the Tommy fandom who knows that the real name of the minor character who sings it is officially credited as the Local Lad.
  • Miser Advisor: Tommy's adoptive dad in the movie, as well as uncle Ernie in both versions.
  • Movie Bonus Song: A few of them: "Bernie's Holiday Camp", "Extra Extra" (set to the tune of "Miracle Cure"), "Champagne", "Mother and Son", and "TV Studio".
    • Although not Movie Bonuses, a few new songs are included in the musical: "We've Won", "I Believe My Own Eyes", and "Sally's Question".
  • Mundane Made Awesome/Serious Business: Pinball. In the film, he doesn't wear a blindfold/earplugs, so it appears his massive following is simply based on being the pinball champ regardless of disability.
  • No Ending: The movie, though a case can be made for "What Now?" Ending.
  • One-Scene Wonder: Elton John's appearance as the Champion/Local Lad in The Movie is one of the most talked-about parts of the film (he even got third billing after Daltrey and Ann-Margret), and he barely even gets five minutes of screen-time. It probably didn't help that it was released in the UK the day after his twenty-ninth birthday.
  • Only Sane Man: The doctor in "Go To The Mirror!". He's the one person who finally deduces that Tommy's condition is psychosomatic, and he (briefly) considers the sort of isolation shock that recovering his senses will cause.
  • Papa Wolf: Captain Walker in the 1993 musical. And he's not very happy when he discovers his wife and son with her new Jerkass lover on her 21st birthday!
    • Tommy's stepfather in the film. Despite him being responsible for the Boy's father's demise and causing his trauma to begin with, he tries his hardest to try to help Tommy. He tries to get him to participate in normal kid activities and when he seems to catch on at what Ernie did to Tommy, he sets Ernie's newspaper on fire. While he and Tommy's mother exploited Tommy's talent for Pinball for fame and fortune, they use said fortune to find a doctor to cure him. When Tommy is finally cured and decides to share his cure with the world, they exploit his image for merchandise, but when a riot breaks out and the rioters try to attack Tommy, the stepfather of all people is shown fighting them off one by one until they overwhelm and kill him.
  • Parental Obliviousness: Tommy's parents, who only offer token concern at leaving him alone with his cousin Kevin or uncle Ernie.
  • Pinball: "Pinball Wizard", of course.
  • Recurring Riff: And all of them appear in the first track - "Overture"
  • Recycled Soundtrack: "Sally Simpson" and "We're Not Gonna Take It" started out as unrelated pop ballads that Townshend re-worked to fit into the story - the former was originally a story about a groupie at a rock concert featuring a Jim Morrison Expy, while the latter was a Protest Song about fascism. The group wanted to put a cover of Mose Allison's "Young Man Blues" in but couldn't find a place to make it fit.
  • Rock Opera: The first one to become popular, in fact.
  • Rock Opera Plot: Though with more Nightmare Fuel than usual...
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The film version at least. It turns very cruel very quickly in the last ten minutes.
  • Shotacon: Uncle Ernie.

Your mother left me here to mind you, now I'm doing what I want to
Fiddling about, fiddling about, fiddle about
Down with your bed clothes, up with your nightshirt
Fiddle about, fiddle about, fiddle about...

  • Single-Issue Psychology: After years of attempts to treat him, all it takes to snap Tommy's trauma-induced catatonia is for his mother to smash the mirror he saw the murder in. Then he's instantly cured and can talk again.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Played straight with lover Frank at first in the 1975 film adaptation, but then Subverted Trope at the end of the film when the angry mob kills him and Nora Walker.
  • Summon Backup Dancers: Averted Trope.
  • Sympathetic POV: Played with during "Pinball Wizard" where the POV switches to a pinball champion that Tommy defeats. The character himself isn't very important to the plot, but when comparing his character to all of the people singing the Villain Songs, it makes the villains singing them seem far, far worse. Though for some reason, some of the fandom seems to interpret it as if said pinball champ is merely a Sissy Villain.
    • Also "Sally Simpson".
  • Taking the Bullet: Tommy's mother Nora takes a knife slash directed at Tommy near the end of the movie.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Mrs. Walker at the beginning of the 1993 musical, who is pregnant at age 16 during World War II.
  • There Are No Therapists: See below.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Tommy's parents, who can't find a (competent) doctor for him until three-quarters of the way through the story. And said doctor lives in the same town they do. They take him to the Acid Queen before that!
  • Unnamed Parent: Both of Tommy's parents are unnamed in both the album and the 1993 musical, though in the film version his mother has a name: Nora Walker.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Fiddle About", which actually makes things creepier.
  • Villain Song: "Fiddle About", "The Acid Queen", and "Cousin Kevin".
    • Note that Kevin and Uncle Ernie's songs were written by John Entwistle -- Pete Townshend gave John the responsibility because he felt he himself didn't have the guts to be sufficiently sadistic.
  • Walking Shirtless Scene: Tommy himself in the movie, after he gets his senses back. Though, granted, it's more like running shirtless underwater and on the lava from an active volcano.