Recommended Viewing Situation:
When you need reassurance that your hangover is an important part of your cultural heritage.
Running Time: 117 minutes.
Format: 35mm Film.
Director: Franc Roddam
Writers: Dave Humphries, Franc Roddam, Martin Stellman, Pete Townshend.
Cinematography: Brian Tufano.
We’re an ugly bunch, the English. Such was my first and prevailing thought on watching Quadrophenia (1979). The Americans would never let this lot on the telly. Cue surge of pride. There’s something very stylish about our weird bodies and horrible haircuts. Maybe they are what inspires us as a nation to produce such fantastic music. Quadrophenia is based on The Who album (1973) of the same name, but it’s not a musical film like Tommy (1975), nor is it about The Who, in the way that films such as mockumentary A Hard Day’s Night (1964) are about The Beatles. Rather, it features a similar narrative to the Rock Opera, following Jimmy (Phil Daniels), a Mod, and his participation in, and eventual disillusionment with the youth culture of the ‘60s.
As a general rule, I’m not enamoured with action films. The explosions, indestructible heroes and casual misogyny of action blockbusters don’t really tickle my pickle. If, like me, you prefer motorbikes, bare-knuckle fist-fights, underwhelming sex and crushing existentialism, Quadrophenia might be the film for you.
The name Quadrophenia is a play on the prefix ‘quadro-’, meaning four, and the word ‘schizophrenia’; Jimmy’s dad suggests that Jimmy is schizophrenic and has multiple personalities (the conflation of schizophrenia with multiple personality disorder is common, misleading and harmful); it’s probable that Jimmy’s character is made up of four personalities: those of each member of The Who. Depressed by his job and his family, Jimmy throws himself into Mod culture, cultivating his appearance to fit Mod aesthetics, obsessing over the music and taking amphetamines. When he takes his scooter to meet his friends, they frequently clash with groups of Rockers, the opposing subculture. Despite the risk of injury, Jimmy and his friends approach these fights with a savage pleasure; they are play-fighting on a large scale in a desperate refusal of the responsibility and inhibitions of adulthood. The reality of the danger and futility of these altercations seems to hit him first when his gang attack a childhood friend, Kevin (Ray Winstone), who is now a Rocker, in retaliation to an attack on a Mod gang member which Kevin had no involvement with. From this point onwards, Jimmy becomes more and more disillusioned with the culture he has romanticised. Jimmy seems to abandon Mod culture altogether when he spots Ace Face (Sting), a figure who epitomises the Mod aesthetic, working as a Bell Boy in a hotel in Brighton, and realises that behind the scenes, nobody is as free or as glamorous as they seem.
The beauty of Quadrophenia is that it doesn’t tell us anything that Jimmy is feeling – it shows us. Phil Daniels’ performance is so earnest and lacking in self-consciousness that we forget he is an actor performing in front of a camera and are transported back to our own adolescent search for meaning and individuality. When we see Jimmy applying eyeliner on the train, a gesture at odds with his usual style, no explanation is given but we understand intuitively that this is an attempt to distance himself from a movement he now views as empty and commonplace.
It might seem strange that Quadrophenia should choose to display the Mods versus Rockers phenomenon in this way, given that the Mods made up the majority of The Who’s fanbase, but its appeal is that, like their music, Quadrophenia presents a reality we can relate to. They know what it’s like to get out of your brain on the train.