"'Mod' is a shorter word for 'young, beautiful and stupid'—we've all been there."
The seriously underlooked film Quadrophenia—based on The Who's 1973 "rock opera" concept album—mirrors the anti-establishment youth who populate it by being argumentative of form. One might call it the anti-West Side Story, retaining that musical's gang affiliations, violent outbursts born of adolescent inner turmoil, and perhaps even the implication of transcendent spirituality, but standing outside of the contexts of sentimental romance and lavish melodrama. In his liner notes for the Criterion Collection's edition of the film, Howard Hampton calls Quadrophenia "the anti-Tommy" for its embrace of gritty, grotty realism over psychedelic flights of fancy. Certainly, one might call Quadrophenia an anti-musical that, despite its song-cycle source, almost perversely keeps The Who's music recessive rather than putting it in the mouths of the story's characters.
And Franc Roddam's film is all the more brilliant for this seemingly counter-intuitive approach. Positively ethnographic, Quadrophenia closely follows disaffected teenage anti-hero Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels, exuding fierce discomfort) as a means to the end of understanding the youth culture of early-1960s London. The Who provides the soundtrack of his life in ways both literal—Jimmy watches the band on Ready, Steady, Go! (as his father bothersomely heckles)—and figurative, as a musical projection of his inner life (notably in the resolving use of "Love, Reign o'er Me"). Jimmy may play a game of pinball, but he's no Tommy: he's keenly connected to his social vexation, meeting it with equal parts whimsical snark and querulous anger. Reacting strongly to the bourgeois values he encounters at home with Mr. and Mrs. Cooper (Michael Elphick and Kate Williams) and at work (the advertising firm where Jimmy delivers the post), the angry young man makes the mod scene wherever it's to be found.
The generational ownership offered by "mod" culture, versus that of the rival "rockers," provides some common identity and a common enemy, albeit a senseless one. The film repeatedly pits the scooter-driving mods against the motorcycle-riding rockers, from a "Be-Bop-a-Lula"-vs.-"You Really Got Me" shouting match to the climactic battle royale alongside and on the beach in Brighton. The more rational enemy remains square society. The middle-aged ad execs who lord it over Jimmy, smoking as he vomits from a hangover, banter about a product they don't believe in but are employed to push on the public. Suburban life sets an undesirable standard. Mr. Cooper judges his son's behavior "not normal," to which Jimmy retorts, "What's normal, then?" Jimmy's "new normal" is anti-establishment rebellion, whether a commonplace retreat to in-my-room masturbation (observed by Roddam with blunt, and therefore provocative, candor, like the nudity and sex displayed elsewhere in the film) or criminal acting-out, like Jimmy's symbolic destruction, with his scooter, of front-yard plants and a pharmacy break-in that enables Jimmy's pill abuse.
But this dubious direction "drives" Jimmy first to distraction and ultimately a little crazier by the hour. A dread hangs over these young people, who—after all—are destined to inherit their parents' Earth. For all their bluff (exemplified by hypocritical rocker Ace Face, Sting in his screen debut), these joyless-riders are on a roundabout, repeating an age-old cycle of birth, resistance, conformity, and death. In that, the film's interpretation of Quadrophenia both honors Pete Townshend's narrative vision (he conspicuously appears as a pinup on Jimmy's wall) and steps further out in service to a poignant philosophical disappointment that's ultimately Roddam's vision. And though the film doesn't exactly put the band's songs at the forefront, there's no missing the band's artful musical expression.
Director of photography Brian Tufano thrillingly executes Roddam's confident visual approach (kudos too to editors Sean Barton and Mike Taylor): thrilling camera movement powers the action scenes (various fights and riots) and the finale, with its stunning helicopter shots. Quadrophenia expertly captures a moment of cultural madness, and the youthful mania attendant to losing one's way in the world. Poor Jimmy flees a dead end only to arrive at a cliff, but perhaps it's not all bad; perhaps he's gotten a bit closer to a higher consciousness.
Criterion rescues Quadrophenia with a fantastic Blu-ray edition that easily shames all previous releases. I was lucky enough to see a screening of the film in 2012, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, in a 35mm print that had only been previously run three times. Criterion's transfer, from a 35mm interpositive, retains grain for a palpably filmic appearance while providing a quite clear and well-defined image yielding considerably more detail, and truer color, than ever before on home video. The sound is even better, benefiting mightily from the work done on the 2011 music box set Quadrophenia: The Director's Cut. Working with the band, Criterion produced a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack combining film elements (dialogue and effects) with original masters of the song tracks. The result is an awesome new dynamic range to the music when one selects the 5.1 mix (be aware: the disc defaults to a completely faithful LPCM 2.0 track).
The typically fine Criterion bonus features kick off with a fascinating commentary by director Franc Roddam and director of photography Brian Tufano, their separate comments compiled into one track. This track presents the most comprehensive making-of feature, but we also get a fairly in-depth vintage excerpt from the BBC chat show "Talking Pictures" (26:07, HD) featuring interviews with Roddam, Roger Daltrey, and Sting.
The disc also serves up cultural context via segments from French news magazine "Sept jours du monde" (8:19, HD)—a 1964 report on battling Mods and Rockers—and French program "Seize millions de jeunes" (34:31, HD)—a 1965 episode about The Who's early influence on youth culture.
"Bill Curbishley" (13:42, HD) is a 2012 interview with The Who's longtime manager, also a co-producer of Quadrophenia; his comments focus on a retrospective view of the film, its reception, and the time it depicts.
In another new interview, "Bob Pridden" (7:50, HD), the Who's sound engineer, explains the process behind the creation of the 5.1 mixes available on Criterion's release.
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