Compared to many of their contemporaries in the British rock scene of the 1960s, the Who were relatively slow to make their way onto the big screen, but once they did, they used the movies to much better advantage than the vast majority of pop groups, thanks to their palpable on-stage charisma and embrace of thematic narratives in their music.
Formed as the Detours in 1962, the Who started out playing a typical assortment of R&B and first-wave rock covers, but as Pete Townshend's angular guitar leads gained prominence, he began writing his own songs, which took a decidedly individual perspective on the traditional themes of teenage angst and identity. Under the guidance of manager Peter Meaden, the band changed their name to the High Numbers and began slanting their look and style to curry the favor of Mods, a clothes-conscious teenage subculture that craved the cool sound of hard R&B. The ploy was only a partial success, and it wasn't until the group changed their name to the Who and Pete Townshend accidentally destroyed a guitar on stage that the group finally found the hook that made them famous. Townshend's amphetamine-overdrive guitar style, the good looks and powerful vocals of Roger Daltrey, the manic, anything-goes drumming of Keith Moon, and John Entwhistle's fluid bass lines and stock-still stage demeanor gave the band a truly distinctive personality, and their orgies of instrument destruction attracted the attention of Mods as well as the rock intelligentsia. With the help of new managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, the band found themselves the talk of British rock by 1966, with a small but growing reputation in the United States.
After a few brief visits to America opening for other acts or playing on package tours, the Who cemented their reputation in the United States with literally explosive performances at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and on the top-rated TV variety show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (the former appearance became a chaotic highlight of the acclaimed documentary Monterey Pop). However, it was Kit Lambert who pointed the way to the group's future in 1966 when, as Townshend was writing songs to fill out the group's second album, he suggested that Pete write several short songs with a narrative link -- a rock opera, if you will. The result was "A Quick One (While He's Away)," and while its nine-minute length prevented it from becoming a hit, it gained the band a wealth of publicity, and Townshend began a longer cycle of dramatically related songs. The eventual result was Tommy, a two-record set that concerned the troubled life and times of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a world-champion pinball player and spiritual icon. When the band performed the album in its entirety shortly before its release at the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in Bethel, NY, the performance was rapturously received, and the set's anthemic finale made it into the documentary film Woodstock.
Tommy's success made the Who into world-class rock stars, and after a number of stage and ballet productions of the "opera," Townshend and the group joined forces with director Ken Russell to bring Tommy to the big screen. While Roger Daltrey was cast in the title role and the other three members of the group appeared in the film, the supporting cast was an odd jumble of film stars with limited singing abilities (Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson) and pop stars not noted for thespian skills (Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton). Still, Russell's over-the-top style made the film exciting to watch regardless of one's feelings about its coherence.
After Tommy's success, Pete Townshend attempted to write another extended "rock opera" as a follow-up. His first attempt, an ambitious multimedia work called Lifehouse, went unfinished for many years, and its completed songs were folded into the 1971 album Who's Next. But in 1973 the Who returned with Quadrophenia, a striking narrative work about the emotional crises of a young Mod named Jimmy with a four-way split personality. While the album wasn't the worldwide sensation of Tommy, its story was compelling and much easier to follow, and in 1979 the Who worked with director Franc Roddam to turn Quadrophenia into a feature film. In this case, the album's narrative was adapted into a realistic drama, with the music acting as accompaniment and counterpoint, and none of the band's members appeared in the film. While Quadrophenia was in production, documentary filmmaker Jeff Stein assembled 15 years of documentary footage of the Who into The Kids Are Alright, a superb celebration of the band's history that features priceless footage of their remarkable live shows. Sadly, by the time The Kids Are Alright and Quadrophenia hit theaters, drummer Keith Moon had died, and while the group soldiered on for a time with percussionist Kenny Jones, the group seemed to have lost enthusiasm for film projects, though in 2000 the reunited band did make an appearance on the television series The Simpsons.
Of the group's individual members, Roger Daltrey has racked up a number of credits as an actor, though beyond his appearances in McVicar and Mack the Knife, few of his films have been especially distinguished. The late Keith Moon displayed a genuine knack for comic roles in his brief supporting roles in That'll Be the Day, Stardust, and Sextette and was said to be investigating other film opportunities at the time of his death. And Pete Townshend served as executive producer for the animated feature The Iron Giant, which was based on a children's book by Ted Hughes that Townshend earlier used as the basis for his concept album The Iron Man.