August 27, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: Quadrophenia (1979)

by Steve Dollar


Against all expectations—only half of them died before they got old—The Who are invading America again this fall, with a 37-city tour of their 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia. Announcing the news, Pete Townshend, his hearing diminished if not his troublemaking tongue, complemented Mick Jagger on his 'huge and extremely tasty' penis and taunted Bruce Springsteen for playing hillbilly music, although I'm sure no one has lost any sleep over it.

Though it's arguably the stronger work, at once more visceral and majestic, Quadrophenia has always been overshadowed by the symphonic and psychedelic Tommy—in vinyl and on screen, where Ann-Margret writhed in orgasmic excess amid a flood of baked beans, courtesy of the never-sedate Ken Russell. But 40 years later, the story of a speed-addled, socially maladjusted, rampaging Mod named Jimmy—his personality splintered four ways (just like the Who!)—sustains its relevance: It's rock'n'roll's great angry young man saga, from rock'n'roll's greatest poet of the angry young men.


In 1979, The Who released a movie version, directed by Franc Roddam with the full cooperation of the band. At the time, I recall the film coming and going without much fuss. This was the heyday of Saturday Night Fever, and also the year of The Who's discontent: Drummer Keith Moon died during the production, and in late 1979, at a concert in Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum, 11 fans died in a stampede—a far greater tragedy than the shooting at Altamont. It would have been easy at the time to consider Quadrophenia, and its companion documentary The Kids Are Alright, as the band's unintended epitaphs. And, surely, although Townshend would continue to record compelling solo projects, The Who might as well have stopped recording after Moon's death.

So, as a fan, it's thrilling to discover that Quadrophenia—the movie, now out on Criterion (with a spanky 5.1 surround mix, even)—has aged so remarkably well it feels timeless. Odd praise, perhaps, for a dead-solid-perfect period piece, one so relentlessly attentive to its skinny ties, motorbikes and dance moves that it could serve as a primer: How to Mod. For all its flash, though, the movie's charms also lie in its modesty. In 1986, Julien Temple would go new wave Busby Berkeley with Absolute Beginners, which reimagined the birth of the British teenager in the late 1950s chronicle by Colin MacInnes. But Roddam's approach is calibrated to recognizable social facts and workaday realities, his vision of London in 1964/65 keyed to brash, insecure kids shredding the drab chrysalis of post-war England to flaunt Italian suits as they raced through the streets on their Vespas, ready to invent The Sixties.


Jimmy (Phil Daniels) seems like the last person alive to potentially ignite a cultural revolution, which is surely part of the point. This gawky, adenoidal Townshend manqué/surrogate runs with a pack of like-minded style merchants, kids who spend anything they make from entry-level jobs or petty crime to accessorize their scooters and buy "French Blues" to pop, dancing all night, chasing birds and clashing with the Rockers—the leather-and-sideburns counterpoint to the clean-cut Mods, what with their Elvis hair and their burly manner. Everything in the first half of the film is a vector towards a climatic battle after the tribes converge on Brighton beach for a weekend riot, but Roddam adroitly situates the dynamic in a close-quarters scene between Jimmy and an old friend Kevin (Ray Winstone, in one of his early performances) on opposite sides of a wall in a bathhouse. The a capella refrain of Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-a-Lula" alerts Jimmy to the presence of a Rocker, and soon a vocal war is on (Jimmy chooses The Kinks' "You Really Got Me"). When they finally come face to face there's the shock of recognition, and a brief truce... but the friendship won't stay rekindled for long.

Yet, that's true of all Jimmy's relationships. Although he's presented as a deeply troubled cipher of manic-depression, Jimmy is driven—self-destructively—to be the center of attention. This, even if it means being alone in a huge crowd. Mostly, it seems, he wants the affections of Steph (Leslie Ash, otherwise unknown to American audiences but a recurrent tabloid celebrity in the UK), the cute, promiscuous blonde on the scene, a precursor to the Jean Shrimptons and Jane Birkins who would, just a year or two later, begin to define the look of 1960s London. In my favorite scene, set at a Brighton dance hall the Mods have taken over for the night, Roddam and his cinematographer, Brian Tufano, make masterful use of fluid tracking shots to triangulate Jimmy, Steph and Ace Face (Sting, in his motion picture debut, exhibiting immaculate, speechless and near-Aryan cool as the Most Mod of All Mods), establishing a geometry of attraction, envy and mania. The scene begins with clean, choreographed high heels stepping in rhythm to "Green Onions" and ends with Jimmy, using a balcony overhang as a dance floor, wigging out in a primal boogaloo as The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" rattles the rafters. It's a showstopper, capped by a stage dive that Roddam copped from some punk-rock shows he'd seen.


Even though the riot footage is breathtaking, this preceding sequence is the keeper: a skillful, nuanced revelation of character executed amid scores of extras in motion, without a hint of showiness. That sensibility extends to the film's use of the The Who's original music, which arrives mostly as psychic telegrams to cue key plot or character moments: a verse or two, like an echo in the characters' heads. The teenage kicks can't carry Jimmy far, and while his mates go their merry way he sinks deeper in depression. His parents kick him out. He wrecks his bike. His quits his job. He loses the girl to his best friend. In the film's most bitter reversal, a return to Brighton reveals Ace Face to be a complete conformist: He's a "Bell Boy." What's left? A last ride along the Newhaven cliffs, while Roger Daltrey declares that "I've had enough of dancehalls / I've had enough of pills / I've had enough of streetfights / I've seen my share of kills," in the album-closing Zen hoedown.

The ambiguous, downbeat ending would never pass muster these days. In Purple Rain, released only five years later, that no-less-petulant rebel dandy Prince rides off with the girl, not an existential crisis. Though it's got style to burn, Quadrophenia owes a lot to the realist tradition in British television and drama, which is where most of its principals would make their careers. That's part of what makes it such a well-traveled time capsule, not only the pinstriped details but the tempered tone of vérité moments. The grandiosity is all locked inside Jimmy's head.

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Posted by ahillis at August 27, 2012 4:30 PM