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TV REVIEWS : Documenting the Life of 'Tommy'

March 05, 1994|CHRIS WILLMAN

Go to the adding machine, boy: No work of modern art has enjoyed a trajectory quite like "Tommy's"--from hit pop record album to motion picture to Broadway musical, with lesser stops as ballet and symphony production in between, and nearly a quarter-century separating its first and last major incarnations.

An hour almost doesn't seem quite long enough, then, for "The Who's Tommy: The Amazing Journey," a first-rate special that does a--no pun intended--smashing job of documenting Pete Townshend's rock opera in all its variations. (It airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on the Disney Channel; this being a "free preview" weekend, it's available to all cable subscribers.)

"The Who were a singles band," says Townshend, figuring "it was my inability to come up with a song that was better than 'I Can See for Miles' that stopped me in my tracks" and triggered him to attempt writing a full-length narrative. It proved one of rock's most brilliantly conceived and executed albums, both for its enduring wealth of memorable individual melodies and its concepts. Psychological denial and memory repression, fleeting messianism both pop and religious--these are themes (and tunes) that don't date.

The hour has as much fatuousness as you'd expect, but also a good amount of anecdotes and cheek--like Townshend remembering his strenuous objection to casting Jack Nicholson in the movie; Roger Daltrey and John Entwhistle implying doubts about the un-rock-'n'-roll-ness of a stage musical; the Broadway choreographer frustratedly pointing out how few down beats there are to dance to in the thunderous drumming set down by Keith Moon.

Toward the end, Elton John proclaims a "culmination" for Townshend's work, saying: "After 25 years he's finally found the perfect vehicle for it, which is the stage." That's extremely arguable for rock fans who may find a certain amount of hokum in the latest adaptation, yet its success bodes inarguably well for interactivity between the arts and pop as potentially in disposable after all.

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