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A long-desired title for fans of Brit pop music and culture has arrived in a sparkling Blu-ray edition, courtesy of The Criterion Collection: Franc Roddam's 1979 Quadrophenia, based on the 1973 rock opera by The Who. Unlike Ken Russell's 1975 Tommy, Quadrophenia is not a musical but a dramatization of the album's story of a disaffected London mod, Jimmy. The Who's songs are used only as a background score.
Most American pop fans have received their education in British teen culture in fits and starts. In A Hard Day's Night Ringo Starr is asked if he's a mod or a rocker, and he quips, "No. I'm Mocker." In the 1950s the Teddy Boys were the first conformist craze to mobilize teen culture on the streets. By the early 1960s the (main) divide was between rockers and mods. Whereas rockers were basically motorcycle gangs from the American mold, preferring '50s rock 'n' roll, mods spent money on specific fashions and followed all the latest trends in music. As explained in the disc's essential pamphlet notes and commentary, mods were often slighted as effeminate based on their appearance. They were also more likely to hold down a job, as their fashion needs required an income.
The storyline follows the outlines of songs from Pete Townshend's Quadrophenia album. Jimmy (Phil Daniels) strives to find personal success as a mod. Although he has the required attire and the de rigueur Lambretta motor scooter, he never seems to reach fulfillment. Jimmy shirks his work duties as a mailroom boy at an ad agency. As do most of his friends, he pops large quantities of amphetamines to stay 'on edge'. Although he fits in well with his mates, the girl he admires, Steph (Leslie Ash) is another fellow's steady date. This frustration adds to Jimmy's feelings of alienation. Angry that everyone else at a wild party has a love interest, he tears up the front garden with his scooter. Jimmy is also conflicted by the fact that he cannot associate with Kevin (Ray Winstone), a childhood friend just back from the Army. Now a rocker, Kevin is considered an enemy.
The mods look forward to descending on Brighton for a weekend bash. Cheated in a drug purchase by an organized crime contact, Jimmy and his friends break into a chemist's shop to get the blue speed capsules they covet. The Brighton break begins at a big dance hall, where the crowd is wowed by Ace Face (Sting), a super-cool local mod idolized by all. The next day, a major riot-rumble with the rockers gives Jimmy a chance to make it with Steph in an alley. But Jimmy is nabbed in the mass arrest and given a stiff fine. Steph changes her sexual allegiance to Jimmy's friend Dave (Mark Wingett). Now thoroughly unhappy, Jimmy lashes out in all directions: at home, at work and against his friends.
Quadrophenia immerses the viewer in a lifestyle quite different than American teen culture of the 1960s. Although the media identified the rock group The Who as mods, Jimmy and his working-class friends have little in common with rock idols of any stripe. Basically underprivileged consumers, they take on the mod identity out of boredom and the desire to belong to something bigger than themselves. The cheaply bought uppers provide the exhilaration missing from an empty and illusory lifestyle. Jimmy doesn't realize it but he's looking for something better. He's already a major bad attitude case at home and at work, a trend made worse by the rejection he receives from the girl of his dreams. When Jimmy makes it with Steph he mistakenly thinks that they have a relationship, but she is apparently willing to sleep with any fellow she fancies at any given moment. The final disillusionment comes when Jimmy discovers that his mod idol Ace Face, for all his swagger and style, works as a lowly bellboy at a Brighton hotel.
The screenplay by Dave Humphries, Martin Stellman and director Franc Roddam conjures a long-gone teen scene that reportedly attracted tens of thousands of rootless London youths lacking the opportunities enjoyed by more affluent American teens. Jimmy and his friends speak in strings of profanities and display their ignorance for all to see; one of them comments on the blacks in London by asserting that the "nig-nogs" are from India, you know, "West India." We can tell that Jimmy has potential beneath his insolent attitude. He buys his suits in installments and takes care of his precious Lambretta. Jimmy shows little interest in improving himself in what is still a rigidly classed society.
Amusingly, while we U.S. teens of 1965 were enraptured by English music, the mods in this film dance almost exclusively to the latest American hits. The Who's songs provide a backbone of angst and dissatisfaction that lends needed depth to Jimmy's story. Ken Russell's Tommy now seems an exercise in strained excess, and even Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners is more of an eclectic fantasy than an evocation of a particular cultural scene. Quadrophenia sketches a convincing image of a particular English youth lifestyle from the 1960s, before working class resentment became even more acute.
Phil Daniels is very likeable as the woebegotten Jimmy, an okay guy with a loser's attitude. If teen culture on both sides of the pond was always actually a consumer culture, poor Jimmy and his pals are hopelessly lost in the effort to conform to a meaningless "look". Leslie Ash is appropriately desirable as Steph, a supermarket checker who must devote most of her attention to her perfect hairstyle. Only her winning smile (very reminiscent of Meg Ryan) separates her from the interchangeable dolly girls on the staircase at the beginning of Richard Lester's The Knack... and How to Get It. Sting is a formidable presence as the ultra-mod ideal, the fellow with the best clothes, the best hair, the best scooter. In the back of the police van, Ace Face passes out cigarettes from a silver case. Future notables in the cast include Ray Winstone, looking almost pubescent as Jimmy's rocker friend. Looking more or less as he does now is Timothy Spall, as a slovenly projectionist in the ad agency.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Quadrophenia is an excellent transfer and encoding of a film that often looked grainy and green in theaters. Cinematographer Brian Tufano (Shallow Grave) renders the London nights and the Brighton days with colorful but gritty images. The shiny night streets and the club scene in London contrast with Brighton's windy beach -- the mods look like they really need those military parkas they wear to protect their fancy clothing.
Criterion's engineers have retained the original theatrical mono audio, in addition to a newly created 5.1 surround sound track that references original Who recordings for improved quality. 1
Director Roddam and cameraman Tufano are heard on a new feature commentary. A new video interviews feature Bill Curbishley, a Who producer who also co-produced the movie. A second interview with sound engineer Bob Pridden also contains an audio restoration demonstration. Two French and one British TV show on the film and the mods & rockers phenomenon are included as well. Criterion disc producer Susan Arosteguy's fat insert pamphlet contains writings by critic Howard Hampton and mod Irish Jack, and original album liner notes written by Pete Townshend.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Quadrophenia Blu-ray rates:
1.Note from correspondent Don Beelik, October 10, 2012:
Hi Glenn. Love your website. With great respect it should be noted in the terrific blu ray review of Quadrophenia that the film was originally released in Dolby Stereo, so it was not originally released in mono as the review states although there may have been a dual inventory of Dolby Stereo & mono prints floating around, as was common in the late 1970s. In Toronto it opened exclusively at one downtown cinema in Dolby Stereo and then went wider some weeks later. Later, for several years a famous repertory cinema here (The Roxy Cinema) played it regularly in Dolby Stereo, usually one screening a month or at least every other month -- I saw it there several times. I can definitely attest that it was in Dolby Stereo. They boasted the loudest sound system in Canada at the time (it probably was!) and even had four old Sensurround subwoofer cabinets that they used to enhance the bass on Dolby film soundtracks, especially the rock 'n' roll films that they played at concert level.
Just wanted to point that out. Keep up the terrific work! Sincerely, Don Beelik, Toronto, Ontario
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