Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979) is the closest thing England has produced to its own Mean Streets, but its most invigorating aspect is the way it systematically upends expectations, frustrating ready comparisons. It shares Mean Streets’ dedication to emotional veracity, but its midsixties streets are meaner, more inhospitable—far from the sensual precincts of Little Italy (and from the madding elites of Swinging London). Period songs aren’t given Scorsese’s seductive, exhilarating sheen; these kids aren’t all right, and they’re too wired on pills to really take pleasure in anything but human-pinball aggression. Using the Who’s heavyweight score primarily in flashes and spurts, for aural color or outbursts of blocked feeling, the film subtly distances itself from its own soundtrack, holding the music at a certain remove.
For a movie whose centerpiece is a brilliantly panoramic pitched battle between hundreds of mods and rockers, and despite all the violence, blaring music, and general cacophony that erupt throughout it, Quadrophenia maintains an extraordinary sense of deadening silence looming in the background. The intermittent blasts of noise and chaos—personal or collective (the happy-hooligan chant of “We are the mods” as they decimate a good portion of the seaside town of Brighton), sexual or generational (“Talkin’ ’bout my g-g-g- . . .”)—in this ravishingly glum film are protests that fall on deaf ears: a wall of social denial absorbs the flailing clamor like bricks and mortar pitted against a confused young man’s stubborn battering-ram head.
You’d naturally expect Quadrophenia to be some kind of musical; after all, the movie is based on the Who’s 1973 double-album song cycle. That work came out the same year as Pink Floyd’s equally alienated, overweening The Dark Side of the Moon, and both are headphone operas, half critiquing and half celebrating the space where youth culture turns to solipsism. Dreaming up a convoluted story line about a young, amphetamine-addled head case called Jimmy, composer-librettist Pete Townshend hit on the catchy idea of doubling Jimmy’s schizophrenia, making it “quadrophenia.” On the basis of Ken Russell’s gaudy Tommy (1975), with its nonstop barrage of acid queens, disgorged baked beans, and Roger Daltrey’s Shirley Temple–as-Jesus curls, audiences could be forgiven for anticipating—or dreading—a second roaring helping of the band’s music transferred to the screen in wall-to-wall sensory overkill.
Quadrophenia is the anti-Tommy, however: ruthless realism subsumes motor scooter spectacle, and the Who’s music is deployed sparingly until the last section of the picture; even then, it seems a discrete, almost Brechtian counterpoint to the action rather than a direct expression of what’s happening on-screen. What Roddam has done is to make it impossible to take anything for granted; in the middle of stifling kitchen-sink reality, you (like Jimmy) may feel you are slipping into a fugue state, caught up in a snatch of music, a reverie of escape or revenge. Or just as suddenly, a casual word or gesture may wake you from a dream of freedom, potency, and sex, to find you’re back sinking in the quicksand of the British caste system, without a lifeline in sight.
Sketching a social and spiritual void, Quadrophenia maintains an incorrigibly bleak, existentially forlorn, and purely dissociative worldview, balanced with a degree of grungy humor. Estrangement and dread go hand in hand with slippery spurts of miscreant mishaps and aberrant behavior gone awry—Jimmy and his mates robbing a chemist’s shop with Stooge-like inefficiency, Jimmy tearing up a cozy flower bed with his scooter, or bemoaning his beloved bike’s premature demise under the wheels of a postal lorry: “You’ve killed me scooter!” There is one priceless bit in his room where the camera pans over the bedside wall, which he has covered with a makeshift collage of newspaper headlines about mod-versus-rocker clashes and tawdry cheesecake pinups. Jimmy leans back contentedly against the wall, and there is a black-and-white head shot of Pete Townshend perched right beside his ear, as if whispering antisocial thoughts into his little speed-fried head. (He and his pals gobble pills the way trick-or-treaters gobble M&M’s: “If we go down to Brighton, we’re gonna need bloody millions of ’em, ain’t we?”)
Jimmy isn’t presented as a cool audience surrogate, a heroic rebel; there’s a built-in detachment to his gradual, oh-so-awkward disintegration. Played with gawky, monophonic intensity by Phil Daniels, he’s a twitchy and inarticulate regular lad with no visible drive, no Dean/De Niro (or even Tim Roth/Gary Oldman) charisma. Roddam seems to have absorbed the contemporaneous styles of Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and folded in the poeticized reality of Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills, where adult actors play a group of unconsciously sadistic children.
Jimmy’s world is one of absolute arrested development: his infantile, frenetic parents; his sister planted in front of her sunlamp like some blue-light apparition out of Dr. Who; his bully-boy friends; their leather-clad enemies, the rockers. Parents and offspring alike view life through a twelve-year-old’s prism of ridicule and fear, sticks and stones and school yard taunts. Jimmy’s a mod because he’s afraid that otherwise he’d be less than a nobody—he’d be nothing at all. Difference unnerves him, and so does indifference. His neediness is so sullen and ingrown because he doesn’t have a clue what he needs; playing air drums along with “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and having sex in an alleyway are equivalent releases for him, and neither is fully satisfying. Desperately looking for something to grab hold of, he’s caught between a rock and a dead zone.
In a public bathhouse—a sign of how cramped and decrepit life in Britain remained twenty years after the war—he gets into a shouting match with a rocker in the tub next door, who’s singing Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” Jimmy counters with the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” and the two are ready to come to blows over their musical tastes when Jimmy realizes that he knows the bloke (a young, beautifully pompadoured Ray Winstone). Later, those knee-jerk subcultural politics will lead Jimmy and his boys to chase down the same rocker, giving him an awful beating that helps to precipitate Jimmy’s eventual breakdown.
He doesn’t quite have a crisis of conscience; it’s more that he begins to realize that his personality is divided against itself. Split two ways, four ways, his mind-set is a house of cards that comes closer to crashing down with each new piece of cognitive dissonance. And eating uppers doesn’t exactly soften the rough edges—the pills only ratchet up the cycle of paranoia and humiliation. He starts to realize that the gulf between the mod ideal of cool and the squalid disarray of his own life is insupportable; there aren’t enough pills and brawls to compensate for his ever-deepening isolation.
Keep in mind that by the time the movie was made, the mods had been succeeded by several waves of British subcultures. Those prophets of alienation included, to name the most visible, hippies, skinheads, headbangers, glitter kids, and, by 1979, punks. Quadrophenia, immaculately photographed by Brian Tufano (who does expert close-up and telephoto portraiture without prettifying things), doesn’t traffic in facile youth nostalgia. If anything, it posits a culture where each new attempt to break free winds up in the same old dustbin of fashion history. (It can seem to shadow punk like a premonition of fast-track obsolescence.) Some bristling, hugely alive television footage of the Who only serves to dramatize the distance between the emergent rock god Roger Daltrey and everyday mods like Jimmy, with their parkas, pasty, acne-mapped faces, and high-strung clumsiness. There is one partial exception to this: the Ace Face, played by Sting with a plastic sneer, lords about as king of the Brighton mods—he has the golden swagger and white boy R&B dance moves down pat (even if there is a slight hitch in his movements and affect, as though his gears don’t all mesh). Jimmy idolizes him, and Townshend’s best twist (immortalized in the album’s “Bell Boy”—“I gotta get runnin’ now”—and carried over to the movie) is to have him exposed to Jimmy as worse than a hypocrite. It turns out the Face is really a bellboy at a posh hotel—a monkey in a red suit, scuttling after the toffs for loose change and jumping when they holler.
Throughout, Roddam is able to distill Townshend’s operatic psychodrama (which in part referenced the internal dynamics of the group) into something genuinely convincing, unsentimentally moving. The secret may be that he isn’t beholden to Townshend’s idea of rock as a liberating life force: Jimmy loses his illusions without a corresponding sense of emancipation or illumination. Finally, when he steals the Face’s wonderfully ornamented scooter and drives it off the highest white cliff of the famous Beachy Head, the bike’s slow-motion descent and crack-up on the rocks below is more desolate than the apocalyptic ending of Zabriskie Point. That Jimmy is shown walking away from the site in the opening shot of the movie is suitably ironic without redeeming the wreckage of his life. His destruction of the bike and all it has come to represent isn’t presented as a triumph but as the last stop on the Teenage Wasteland Express.
What’s next for him? The last-shot-first nature of Quadrophenia makes Jimmy’s story seem like a loop he’s destined to repeat. His bitter, uncomprehending father tells him at one point that he’s a bloody schizophrenic, like his uncle, who couldn’t even kill himself properly. Turns out the poor bastard fell down a well. His dad’s midnight tirade turns unexpectedly tender at this ludicrous image, and they have a good, nervous laugh over it. But the joke, as Jimmy comes to realize across the span of the movie, is on him. There is an unnerving scene earlier on when he is parked by a riverbank at night; he turns his headlamp on a seedy couple there and abruptly guns his bike, charging the poor sots for no reason. In those few seconds, you can see his condition most starkly—it isn’t “quadrophenia” or schizophrenia or any other -enia. Jimmy’s suffering from the affliction called everyday life.
Howard Hampton has written for Film Comment, Artforum, and numerous other publications. He is also the author of Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses.