Here’s how well Sensation – The Story of Tommy succeeds as an engrossing documentary. As the credits rolled, and after being filled with additional knowledge about the creation and impact of The Who’s classic rock opera, I immediately wanted to immerse myself in the album. I purposely didn’t use the word ‘listen’ because all the ideas running through the release merit more than pressing ‘play’ on a CD or digital player or gently placing the needle down on the vinyl and giving it anything less than full attention.
Originally airing on BBC TV last year, this version includes additional material as well as a 33-minute feature from the 1969 German TV show Beat Club with previously unreleased footage that includes performances from the album and band interviews.
It’s set up similar to the Classic Album DVD series, which chronicles major artistic works that became a band’s critical and commercial breakthrough. The Who’s career, pre- Tommy, is briefly brought into historical context. Then, the double album is discussed track-by-track. But, while Classic usually goes into the nuts-and-bolts of a song by stripping it down to specific vocal or instrumental tracks, Sensation concentrates on the overall story, how it transformed over time, its meaning and subsequent offshoots on film and in the theatre.
Since much of the focus rests with how its mastermind, Pete Townshend, progressed from his spiritual awakening and then wanting to develop a storyline around it, we’re treated to more detail on “Tommy”’s background as well as the importance and encouragement of co-manager Kit Lambert. New interviews with Townshend and Daltrey are revealing and supplanted with other significant sources close to the band (co-manager Chris Stamp, engineer Bob Pridden and artist Mike McInnerney), those who closely followed the work (writers Anthony DeCurtis, David Wild and Richard Barnes) and archival footage with John Entwistle, Keith Moon and Lambert.
Tommy established the Who to the world stage as an artistic and commercial entity. Its cultural importance continues to reflect listeners who seek a deeper meaning in life yet remain grounded to the tethers of reality. In “Sensation” we understand how Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon came together to develop a perfect mix of the spiritual and secular, abuse and redemption and discovering the power that lies within each and every one of us.