FILM REVIEW: Quadrophenia (1979)

Quadrophenia (UK, 1979)
Directed by Franc Roddam

Starring Phil Daniels, Mark Wingett, Lesley Ash, Sting

As the 1970s wore on The Who increasingly turned their attention from music to filmmaking. Following Ken Russell's Oscar-nominated adaptation of Tommy, the band gained a stake in Shepperton Studios. Here they filmed the final scene of The Kids Are Alright, in what turned out to be Keith Moon's last live performance. After production wrapped on The Kids Are Alright, the group pressed on with adapting their other rock opera, Quadrophenia.In bringing Quadrophenia to the big screen, the band and first-time director Franc Roddam took a completely different approach than they had for Tommy. Ken Russell had a deep-seated interest in opera and classical music: he treated the material as an opera which just happened to have been written by a rock band. The finished product was a divisive mixed bag: amidst some striking imagery and memorable characterisation, there was a lot of bad singing, over-indulgence and naff pomposity.Quadrophenia is more like a coming-of-age film which documents the rise and fall of the original mods. Its storyline interweaves elements of the rock opera out of album order, and its soundtrack balances The Who with other mod favourites like The Kinks, The Ronettes and The Crystals. The film is around 40 minutes longer than the album even with several songs cut out, taking its time to set up the mods' aims, culture and modus operandi.To understand the reasons for this approach, we have to consider the changing circumstances of the band. When Tommy was made, The Who were at the height of their power as a live group; they had both the money and the fame to be a little over-exuberant. Four years later, punk had moved in and swallowed up the younger generation, leaving The Who in a no-man's-land between circus-act obsolescence and risky reinvention. After the death of Keith Moon, the band lost some of its live firepower, so that even if they had wanted to recapture the old ground, they could no longer drown out their rivals.Much of Quadrophenia is about The Who trying to justify their continued existence by examining the foundations of the culture which launched them. Just as The Who were (retrospectively) described as the original punk rock band, so there is an attempt to portray the mods as the direct predecessors of the punks. There is some similarity in their characterisation, as gangs of young people with a unique dress sense, who eschew all authority and are generally unpleasant to anyone outside their inner circle. Roddam even screen-tested Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten for the lead role, but he was dropped because no-one would insure him.

Despite this earnest desire to justify themselves, the approach of The Who's surviving members is decidedly hands-off. Unlike Tommy, the band do not appear in person, either as themselves or in character (for instance, Keith Moon playing Uncle Ernie with a worrying amount of relish). We are therefore spared the prospect of Pete Townshend et al playing themselves aged 21, in the manner of Mariah Carey's excremental Glitter. There are only two occasions in which we see the band: once on a poster of Pete Townshend next to Jimmy's bed, the other in an early TV performance from Ready, Steady, Go!.This strange sense of modesty is further reflected in the soundtrack, which was overseen by bassist John Entwistle. In Quadrophenia the songs are mixed right down to serve as background, rather than being the driving force for the action. When 'My Generation' gets played at the house party, you quickly get the mods shouting over it until Roger Daltrey's delivery becomes totally lost. The film is emphasising the effect which this music had rather than the band that created it; we have to focus on Jimmy as a character rather than as a vessel for different aspects of the group.Although this approach may disgruntle purists, the music in Quadrophenia is still of a high quality. Of the seventeen album tracks, ten survive in either their original form or with very slight alterations - for instance, the new bass part and more definitive ending of 'The Real Me', which plays out over the opening credits. The three original compositions which Townshend penned are also up to snuff: they may be more deliberately incidental, but they still feel like Who songs, and the oft-maligned Kenney Jones manages to at least partially replicate Keith Moon's drumming style.Quadrophenia is a character study of a confused young man, who attaches himself to the mods as a means of identity, but starts to go to pieces when they desert him. Early on in the film he meets his childhood friend Kevin (a young Ray Winstone), who has just returned from a spell in the army. Jimmy has a warm bond with Kevin, but whenever his friends turn up he changes his tune and runs with the pack - right down to him fleeing the scene when Kevin is beaten up for being a rocker.The central idea of Quadrophenia is that of youth-led revolution. The mods were the first genuinely post-war teenagers; having no real attachment to the world or values of their parents, they saw no reason to accept the old way of life. The scenes of the Brighton riots are edgy and visceral, showing the gang mentality of both mods and rockers, and the cluelessness of the police who simply don't know how to respond t to a generation that doesn't care. When the magistrate orders him to pay a fine, the Ace Face (played unconvincingly by Sting) responds by getting out his chequebook, causing the whole court to erupt with laughter.But rather than simply glorify the mods, Quadrophenia highlights the dangers of identifying with such a culture too closely. Just as The Who only became truly successful after the mods died away, so Jimmy only gets to see 'the real me' when the scales have fallen from his eyes. Having been thrown out of home, jilted by Lesley Ash and his prized scooter wrecked by a lorry, he decides to return to Brighton. After a drug-fuelled train journey ("out of my brain on the 5:15"), he finds the mods gone and the Ace Face working as a bell boy at the hotel they smashed up. Alienated and depressed, Jimmy throws Ace's scooter off Beachy Head. The scooter, like the mods, is smashed beyond repair, while the fate of Jimmy remains unknown.There are a number of flaws with Quadrophenia. Despite the impressive choreography during the riots, Franc Roddam's direction is not great - the choice of camera angles is rather jobbing and the sequence on the cliffs could have used a couple of big edits. The first hour feels padded out, taking too long to get to Brighton and dragging narratively: there are only so many parties, bars and cafes we need to visit to understand how mod culture works. One scene in particular, of Jimmy and his friends raiding a pharmacy, wanders rather too close to Animal House in its jokes about pills and condoms.Like so many cult films, Quadrophenia is rough around the edges and approaches its subject matter in a manner which is not entirely successful. But as an examination of mod culture it manages to be comprehensive and genuine without totally falling in love with its subject, and it manages to do justice to the album, albeit in a roundabout way. Though Russell is by far the better director, this work had dated much better than Tommy, and it remains a highly influential work of 1970s cinema.

Rating: 4/5

Verdict: A rough-and-ready cult classic


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