Step into the time machine and don those rose-tinted glasses… or not?
What’s it about?
Quadrophenia is an adaptation of The Who’s 1973 rock opera. Phil Daniels plays Jimmy, a young man living in London during 1964 who is a die hard member of the Mod movement. The film depicts his life as he rides around on his beloved Lambretta scooter with his fellow Mods, gatecrashes parties, takes drugs, gets into fights with Rocker gangs, commits petty vandalism and regularly bunks off his day job as an errand boy working at an advertising company. His two best mates are Chalky (Philip Davis) and Dave (Mark Wingett). He also has a friend from his younger days named Kevin (Ray Winstone) who is now a Rocker and hence he can’t be seen with him. He lives with his parents (played by Michael Elphick and Kate Williams) who understand neither him, his generation nor his taste in music. Steph (Leslie Ash), the girl whom he has is eye on, seems to show a mutual interest in him, but unfortunately has a boyfriend named Peter (Garry Cooper).
The film leads up to an eventful Bank Holiday weekend at Brighton that will have a profound effect on his life.
Why is it significant?
After the huge success of the first big screen adaptation based on a rock opera by The Who - Ken Russell’s 1975 version of their 1969 album Tommy - the band themselves produced this 1979 adaptation of their later album of the same title. However, while Tommy was an out-and-out musical, this is more of a slice-of-life period youth drama with the band’s music acting as a sort of Greek Chorus to the action.
In an undoubted nod at tying its tale of the idiosyncrasies of youthful rebellion in with the then-nascent punk era, John Lydon of The Sex Pistols was Pete Townshend’s first choice for the lead role of Jimmy. Unfortunately he refused, so a rising young London actor named Phil Daniels got the role instead. However, Sting and Toyah Willcox, two icons of the new wave music movement (basically punk’s slicker, more pop-orientated cousin), did appear in supporting roles.
The film won acclaim from most critics during its release and has gone on to become an enduring cult favourite amongst British university students, who celebrate its rock soundtrack and its study of the youthful need to shake loose society’s shackles.
How does it hold up?
In many ways Quadrophenia is the British answer to Phil Kaufman’s The Wanderers, which was released in the same year. The likenesses are uncanny: similar period but opposite sides of the pond (The Wanderers: 1963 New York, Quadrophenia: 1964 London); similar youth culture milieux; similar slice-of-life approach to storytelling as the protagonists experience gang warfare, unsympathetic adults, awkward relationships with the opposite sex, parties etc; similar use of period rock tunes acting as a Greek Chorus. The directorial approaches aren’t wildly different either with an energetically visceral feel to story pacing and how scenes play out.
The main differences between The Wanderers and this film (apart from the locations and other surface details) are in the respective personae of the main protagonists, and moreover how these ultimately affect the outcome of their tales. In the former film the lead character of Richie (played by Ken Wahl) is an engaging alpha male, whom the viewer can instinctively work out will ultimately make the awkward switch from bad boy to successful man as he gets dragged into adulthood. The darker aspects of the story (such as the horror movie-style gang known as The Ducky Boys) are forces very much external to a “hero” who is being rebellious due to naively youthful spunk more than anything else. Quadrophenia is far more disturbing because the darkness is internalised by the visible weaknesses of its own equivalent protagonist: Jimmy is an ugly, angry Napoleonic figure who masks his own misunderstood anguish behind a foul-mouthed, rebellious surface. He can only express this privately (Phil Daniel’s performance has genuine emotional depth here incidentally) so his rebellion through the channel of Mod gang shot-caller is the only option for release visible to him. As with Richie in The Wanderers he can’t defy gravity indefinitely and ultimately has to fall into societal responsibility at some point. Unlike Richie however Jimmy ultimately pulls further away from the few responsibilities he has, with emotionally-devastating consequences.
It is clear that even those who see themselves as rebellious have to conform to survive. During one telling scene his friend Kevin relays how he spent a year in the army to be different from his peers, only to discover an environment where “there’s some cunt with stars and stripes on him pushing you about”. After this line of dialogue, there is a rather telling cut straight to a scene back at the advertising agency where Jimmy works, as his elders/superiors bark orders at him and his similarly-aged colleagues.
When Jimmy is away in Brighton with his pals on the fateful Bank Holiday weekend, he meets a notorious Mod scene figurehead called Ace Face (played by Sting) whom he looks up to. Later however, we see that he turns out to have a day job as a visibly subservient bellboy. Note the change in shooting angle and the heights of surrounding actors as, in the former scene, he visibly towers over the other “young ’uns” dancing around him - but in the latter one the opposite is true as he is seen in shot with the hotel guests he dutifully carries bags for.
This was Frank Roddam’s first film as director and, as you might surmise from my description of the above moments, he largely manages a bang-up job. There is a feel of kitchen sink realism to many scenes: of smoke filled dingy rooms with tasteless wallpaper and yellow paint. It feels apt for the style of films that were coming out of Britain during the 60s era. On the other hand, there is a genuine romanticised lyricism to the sequences where Jimmy is riding round on his Lambretta (souped up with multiple wing mirrors giving it the appearance of a flying bird) and where he contemplates while looking out at the Brighton tide. In many ways the tide is representative of his own personal frontier - the point where, for his own good, he can’t take his destructive streak any further. The film’s third main style of scene is the action. The largest of such moments is a huge Brighton brawl between Mods and Rockers. Roddam places the camera right in amongst the ruckus to give a genuine feeling of being there, and delivers a string of taut setpieces as a snack bar filled with Rockers is ransacked, punches are thrown en masse between the two gangs on the beach, and a desperate escape from the encroaching police is cut off by riot vans at every turn. It’s all intercut with a bit of impromptu back alley sex.
There are a few amateurish moments however. There are some glaring errors in period details, for example vehicles from the late 1970s being visible in the background (even a police van racing to the scene during the aforementioned brawl) and a modern pedestrian crossing button in the foreground. Apparently the budget was so low that the filmmakers were unable to cordon off roads, and thus were unable to fully prevent then-modern elements from making incursions into certain scenes. The adult characters are one note cliches: authority figures react only with haughty disdain, while Jimmy’s parents just get flummoxed and angry at their son’s behaviour - when dad listens to his son’s favourite band (The Who of course) he describes the singing as sounding “like a drowned dog”. The female characters are also given short shift; the only one given much to do is Leslie Ash’s Steph, and even she ultimately serves as nothing more than a pretty, and rather fickle, trophy.
Despite these weaknesses, the film’s engaging energy along with its empathy for its rather sad main character make it well worth seeing. Surprisingly, Frank Roddam’s subsequent big screen career didn’t prove so illustrious: he directed several other films such as Lords Of Discipline and The Bride, but none were particularly well-received or fondly-remembered. He has however found success as a writer, producer and director on British TV, the best known of which was the show “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet”, starring Jimmy Nail and Timothy Spall (the latter of whom, incidentally, can be briefly spotted here).
Runtime: 120 mins
Dir: Franc Roddam
Script: Dave Humphries, Martin Stellman, Frank Roddam, Pete Townshend
Starring: Phil Daniels, Leslie Ash, Philip Davis, Mark Wingett, Sting, Ray Winstone, Garry Cooper, Toyah Willcox, Michael Elphick, Kate Williams, Timothy Spall, P.H. Moriarty