Superbit Comparison Essay

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Ken Russell's Tommy (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

The first thing you need to know about Tommy is that you don't have to give a crap about rock & roll or The Who to enjoy it. Yeah, it's a musical of their work, and if you're a big fan, obviously there'll be that extra appeal. But it's a Ken Russell movie. It's one of the craziest Ken Russell movies, which you know is really saying something if you're familiar with Ken Russell films. It's a big, bombastic visual roadshow, with a fascinating, dark undercurrent.

Update 5/9/17: I've gone back and added the original, 1999 US DVD.  Not only does it provide a nice bit of history to this post, but shows us a little something new, as it includes a fullscreen version.
Ken Russell has said he wasn't familiar with The Who or Tommy (it was a rock opera album years before it was a film) when he was approached to make the film. But not only did he like it when he listened to it, but he realized it had a lot in common with The Angels, a script about false religion he'd written to follow The Devils, but was unable to get funded. So this would be a sort of way to make that movie while still being able to be more faithful to the story of all the album than most previous attempts to turn it into a screenplay had been by other writers. So things just sort of dovetailed nicely into an adaptation that could deeply satisfy The Who and their fans, while still being unquestionably a Ken Russell film. After all, breaking boundaries between music and film was more than half of this guy's career.
So we meet Tommy as a young boy. His father, Robert Powell, goes off to war (originally WWI, but updated to WWII in the film), and his mother Ann-Margaret has an affair with Russell regular Oliver Reed. When Powell returns home, they kill him in front of the boy and he goes blind, def and dumb. Cut to a decade later and of course the boy grows up to be Roger Daltry.  He's abused and neglected, drugged and taken advantage of all his life - even psychiatrist Jack Nicholson can't help him - until it turns out he has an inexplicable gift for breaking records at pinball. He becomes a celebrity and even a sort of youth culture messiah, but obviously that can't work out for long.

Giving Russell a massive rock star budget lets him return with unparalleled spectacle. And I'm not a rock and roll guy, but even I have to admit the music's pretty good. I mean, when Tina Turner sings "The Acid Queen?" Come on! But beyond all that, the performances, even though they're all sung and often highly exaggerated, are quite good (Ann-Margaret was nominated for an Academy Award for this, after all) and the story is genuinely involving. This movie is super 70s, and got a lot of mileage out of simply being an epic music video before music videos existed. Nothing like it would fly today. But at the same time, if you love cinema, it holds up completely and shouldn't be missed.
So Tommy first hit DVD in 1999, and even Superbit DVD in 2002, both via Columbia Tri-Star. But those were disappointingly absent any features, and the one to own became the British Prism Leisure import from 2004, because it was a brilliant 2-disc special edition. And then the next noteworthy release was in 2010, when Sony brought it up to HD on blu-ray.  But it was barebones again. Why?
1999 Columbia widescreen DVD first; 1999 Columbia fullscreen DVD second;
2004 Prism Leisure DVD third; 2010 Sony blu-ray fourth.
Well, say what you will, Sony really gave us a nice image with their blu. The UK DVD looked pretty good: anamorphic, un-interlaced, strong colors, 1.85 framing. It was a good DVD. Though surprisingly, the older US DVD, despite being from the 90s, actually looks a bit better, with cleaner lines and more precise colors.  But Sony does more than just present the same transfer on a less compressed blu-ray disc. The image is much sharper and cleaner, with more natural colors and clearer detail. The framing is slightly different, still 1.85:1, but the blu is pointed a little lower, with a bit more picture on the bottom, while the DVDs have a bit more on the top. I can't say one is really better than the other in that regard, but they're different so I'm pointing it out.  Oh, and of course the fullscreen DVD has a lot more on the tops and bottoms.  It's almost entirely open matte, just losing a little on the sides.  But of course 1.85:1 is the proper composition.

Both DVDs have a Dolby stereo track and a 5.1 mix. Audio is especially important in a musical, after all. And Sony appreciated this as well, giving us DTS-HD master tracks for the 5.1 mix, and a 5.0 Quintophonic Sounds mix. "Quintophonic Sounds" was a special 4-way stereo mix designed for this film.  Each release also includes optional English subtitles.
But yeah, for whatever reason, Sony didn't carry over any of Prism's extras. They don't even have the trailer, just a couple of random bonus trailers.

Well, the UK disc does have the trailer, but that's nothing. It starts out with a Ken Russell commentary. He always did great commentaries, and he delivers a great conversation here alongside moderator and famous British film critic Mark Kermode. This alone is a treasure, and it's crazy to think it never made it to the US, but anyway. Russell also has a nice on-camera interview. Ann-Margaret, Roger Daltry and composer Pete Townshend also give fun on-camera interviews, and they're some pretty big gets! There's a 20-minute "Press Promo,' which is a sort of 'making of' doc, combining clips from the film and the interviews already on this disc. Much better is The Story Of the Sound, which is a terrific twenty-minute feature on the Tommy's Quintaphonic sound, including interviews with the film's dubbing mixer Ray Merrin, music editor Terry Rawlings and Robin O'Donoghue, head of sound at Shepperton Studios. The UK 2-disc set also comes in a nice slip-sleeve and includes a 12-page booklet with vintage posters, cards, notes by Matt Kent and an essay by Pete Townshend.
So for years, most serious fans had both the UK set and the US blu - one for the extras and the latter for the superior presentation of the film. That's still a winning combo today. But if you don't already have both and are deciding what to pick up today, fortunately, there's a newer (2013) UK blu which gives you both the HD film (including lossless 5.1 and Quintaphonic sound tracks) and all the extras with even a short bonus, vintage television interview with Russell from the 80s. Either way works. The UK blu, or if you're like me and already have one of the others, the UK DVD plus US blu can be a cheaper way to get the full package. But you should definitely know about these terrific UK extras and import at least one of their releases. And you should know how much smarter the film looks in HD.

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