Was it your decision to bring Tommy to the screen? How did you select Ken Russell?
For years I was against doing Tommy as a film. I felt a film would reduce the impact of the music and make demands of the story to which it could never rise. . . . The first I knew that Ken Russell was on board was meeting him in Wardour Street while recording sound effects for Quadrophenia and his directorial role on Tommy seemed a done deal.
What was your and the rest of the cast's relationship with Russell?
Ken was bombastic, energetic, funny, tireless and inspiring. He had an obsessive eye for detail and planning that I now realize every great film director needs, or in its place the absolute certainty that they can accept what happens when it happens and adapt to it. I never had a bad moment with Ken. . . .
People, including Murray Lerner who is hosting the Tommy event, said watching the rock opera live was akin to a religious experience. Do you feel the film captured that feeling?
The original Tommy album was intended by me — from a composer’s standpoint — to provide the Who with a powerful live piece that would extend what I had done for the band with “A Quick One While He’s Away” — my first mini-opera. My interest in the Indian master Avatar Meher Baba and a fair bit of reading by Sufi authors and mystics at the time of the writing inspired me to try to create a musical piece that provided a spiritual travelogue through the so-called “planes” of consciousness. My deaf-dumb-and-blind hero was a cipher for those of us who are unaware of our spiritual life, either by choice or ignorance. . . .
Would you discuss the casting of the film, which includes such Russell veterans as Oliver Reed but such Hollywood types as Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson?
There is where I hang my head in shame. I initially disagreed with all three of these choices. My arguments were with both Ken and Robert Stigwood. Robert was the most persuasive, explaining the Hollywood star system to me in words of one syllable: “We have to have them.” . . . Roger worked really hard. I was deeply impressed by his professionalism as an actor. He seemed to be a natural. It was through performing in the role of Tommy with the Who that Roger discovered his ability to be a true frontman in a rock band. He almost invented the pseudo-messianic role taken up later by Jim Morrison and Robert Plant.