Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 10, 2014)
One of rock’s most legendary albums undergoes examination via a 2013 documentary called The Who: Sensation – The Story of “Tommy”. This follows a standard format in which we see performance clips and archival images combined with old and new interviews.
In the latter category, we hear from Who members Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, friend/biographer Richard Barnes, music journalists/authors David Wild, and Chris Welch, Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis, former Who manager Chris Stamp, sound engineer Bob Pridden, friend/filmmaker Richard Stanley, friend/artist Mike McInnerney, Rolling Stone founder/publisher Jann Wenner and Broadway production director Des McAnuff. We also get archival comments from Who members John Entwistle and Keith Moon as well as former manager Kit Lambert.
Sensation looks at the status of the Who pre-1969 as well the origins of Tommy. From there the show covers the content of the album and inspirations for the songs along with aspects of its recording and release. We also learn about the album’s reception and legacy.
Over the last 45 years, Townshend, Daltrey and company have covered this ground many, many times. For much of the Who’s existence, Tommy seemed to be regarded as the band’s pinnacle, and it generated a variety of spin-off projects like a 1970s Ken Russell movie and a 1990s Broadway musical.
I suspect the tide has turned and other albums like Quadrophenia and Who’s Next garner more respect. Heck, Sell Out might now have a better reputation than Tommy, though that might just be among more “serious” Who fans.
Whatever the case, Tommy remains a focal point of the Who’s legacy; it wasn’t a coincidence that after they split in 1982, they reunited for 20th anniversary Tommy tour in 1989. (Actually, they played Live Aid in 1985, but that came across as a one-off, not a “formal reunion” ala the 1989 tour.)
Given all that attention since 1969, I don’t know if Sensation can bring much – if anything – new to the table. Whether or not we learn fresh information here, the documentary packages these details well.
Of course, the participation of the band’s two surviving members helps, and Townshend dominates the program. That makes sense, as Pete wrote the songs and was the main factor behind the album’s concept/execution. I don’t intend to diminish the importance of the other band members, but Towmnshend spearheaded and led the project, so he gives us the most significant information about it.
Daltrey gets in some good notes as well, though he tends more toward the technical side of the street; whereas Townshend speaks of songwriting, meaning and influences, Daltrey sticks more with the mechanics of creating the album. The other participants mesh the two sides; while they lack the internal insights we locate from Townshend, they provide good perspective about the album and the era.
Townshend has always been a great interview subject, as he seems to find it impossible to pussyfoot around topics. I don’t believe this means everything Towmshend says is true; I suspect Townshend tells his version of reality, and that may or may not connect accurately to actual events. Nonetheless, he’s fascinating to hear due to his willingness to say what he thinks apparently without much of an internal filter.
As a documentary, Sensation follows a standard format, and I appreciate that. It doesn’t attempt to be clever-clever, and I think that makes sense, as it means the show focuses on information rather than quirky visuals. It moves at a good pace as it covers the subject matter in a logical, concise way.
I could pick some nits with Sensation but not many. While I won’t call it the most dynamic rock documentary I’ve seen, it provides a solid examination of its subject matter and covers the topics well.