All of the movie was filmed to a pre-recorded soundtrack except for the "Pinball Wizard" sequence in which The Who really did play in front of the theatre audience (Elton John's band, however, is featured on the soundtrack). When the fans rush the stage at the end of the sequence, that wasn't scripted but caused by the excitement The Who's live performance generated, particularly when Pete Townshend started to smash his guitar.
The building that is seen to be on fire, part of Tommy's holiday camp, is in fact really burning down. It is South Parade Pier in Southsea. A fire was accidentally started during the filming and the crew decided to include the footage in the film. The fire-crews and the fire are genuine. The pier was rebuilt and is still in use today.
Rod Stewart was originally intended to play the pinball wizard, but Elton John talked him out of it. John then took the part himself. Stewart had played the part in a London stage production, and his version of the song is on his "Greatest Hits" collection.
According to Pete Townshend, Oliver Reed had incredible problems recording his part of the soundtrack owing to his inability to sing, and he was able to complete it only because his singing parts were recorded in small bits. Because of this frustrating experience, Townshend was extremely suspicious towards Jack Nicholson when he was chosen to the role of the doctor. Townshend, however, finally agreed when he heard Nicholson singing effortlessly.
The scene of Mrs Walker's hallucination of soap, beans, and chocolate coming out of the TV set took three days to film. According to Russell's DVD commentary, the baked bean and detergent scenes (and the Rex Baked Beans parody ad) were 'revenge' for real-life baked bean and detergent ads he had made early in his career. Russell also recalled that Ann-Margret's husband objected to her rolling around in the chocolate and that she cut her hand badly on the glass of the TV screen and he had to take her to hospital to have her hand stitched, but was back on set the next day.
According to Ken Russell's DVD commentary, Elton John initially turned down the part of the Pinball Wizard; one of those seriously considered for the role was David Essex, who recorded a version of the "Pinball Wizard" at his home studio. However producer Robert Stigwood held out to get Elton John, who finally agreed to play the role on the condition that he could keep the oversized Doc Martin boots from his costume.
There were several new songs written especially for the movie that weren't on the original album. Among those were "Champagne," "Mother and Son," and "TV Studio." Also, a couple of songs were rewritten with either new lyrics ("Pinball Wizard," "We're Not Gonna Take It," and "Do You Think it's All Right?"), or new titles ("1951" was originally called "1921" on the original release of "Tommy").
The setting of the film and the subsequent 1990s musical version are different from the original version recorded by The Who and the 1972 version recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. In the original version, the setting is just after World War I and Tommy's mother's lover is murdered. In the film version, the setting is just after World War II and Tommy's father is murdered. In the musical version, the setting is just after World War II and Tommy's mother's lover is murdered.
For the 'Pinball Wizard' scene, Elton John said that in taking his mind off the boots he was wearing, he would feel more comfortable with a keyboard in front of him. Subsequently, a crew member was dispatched to obtain one from a local shop, and returned with a small Bontempi-type keyboard, which was stripped down and added to the pinball machine.
Ann-Margret largely improvised the infamous bean scene. Ken Russell simply told her that her character was having a nervous breakdown, and that she could do whatever she wanted. Unfortunately at one point during filming her hand accidentally struck the broken glass of the TV screen and Russell had to rush her to hospital for stitches.
The stage adaption of "The Who's Tommy" opened at the St. James Theater in New York on April 22, 1993, ran for 899 performances and was nominated for the 1993 Tony Awards for the Best Musical, Book and won for Best Score.
According to Roger Daltrey, the very first scene to be filmed was the one in which cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas) is dragging Tommy (Daltrey) by his hair; the next two filmed were the scenes in which cousin Kevin drenches Tommy with the fire hose and then dries him with a hot iron.
Roger Daltrey is just less than three years younger than his screen mother Ann-Margret and just over four years younger than his screen step-father Oliver Reed. To top it all off, Daltrey is exactly three months older than his screen father Robert Powell. He is also two years older than Keith Moon who plays his uncle Ernie.
The only film ever to be released using John Mosely "Quintaphonic Sound" system. This used three of the four audio tracks on a Cinemascope-type 4-track magnetic striped print, two of these were expanded by a Sansui QS quadraphonic decoder to provide for left and right front, and left and right back speakers. The third channel fed the screen-center speaker. In addition all three tracks used dbx noise reduction. Quintaphonic sound was never used again because it required expensive striped prints and was commercially eclipsed by the Dolby Stereo system which employed low-cost optical sound prints. Dolby Stereo launched in 1975 with another Ken Russell film - Lisztomania (1975)
According to Pete Townshend in the his book "Who I Am", when Stevie Wonder found out they were making a movie of Tommy, he wanted to play the Pinball Wizard, but Pete Townshend didn't think it would make sense that he would have a blind guy playing a guy with sight, playing pinball against someone who's supposed to be blind, deaf, and dumb. Needless to say, Stevie Wonder was a little upset at Pete Townshend over it.
The Pinball Wizard sequence was filmed in the Kings Theatre in Southsea. This is not the same theatre in which Ken Russell filmed his earlier work The Boy Friend (1971). This was filmed at The New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth. Both theatres are still very much active.
One of the cripples during "Eyesight to the Blind/Marilyn Monroe" sequence. He can also be seen in the "Tommys Holiday Camp" sequence in the junkyard at the end of the film. He's in a wheelchair.