Friday, January 22, 2016

Quadrophenia (1979)

UK, 120 minutes
Director: Franc Roddam
Writers: Dave Humphries, Martin Stellman, Franc Roddam, Pete Townshend
Photography: Brian Tufano
Music: Who
Editors: Sean Barton, Mike Taylor
Cast: Phil Daniels, Mark Wingett, Philip Davis, Leslie Ash, Garry Cooper, Toyah Wilcox, Sting, Ray Winstone, Kate Williams

The year after the death of Keith Moon was a brave and busy one for the Who, and not always full of good news: they toured, released two movies, and played a show in Cincinnati to a crowd that had just trampled 11 people to death. Nobody knew how bad that was until later—the band was not informed until after the show. These surviving members—Roger Daltrey, John Entwhistle, and Pete Townshend—were starting to bear the weathered look of epic rock 'n' roll destiny, their tragic low points matched by ecstatic highs we already knew. For a minute, the future looked limitless. In retrospect now it looks more like the beginning of their long goodbye, still ongoing. Quadrophenia was the narrative film they released that year, as a kind of matching piece with the galvanizing documentary The Kids Are Alright.

Based on the band's double-LP concept album Quadrophenia, a rock opera from the mid-'70s, the movie focuses on Britain's mid-'60s Mods and Rockers rivalry, which coincided with the rise of the Who. The conflict between Mods and Rockers is neatly encapsulated here in a scene where two young men try to sing signature songs loud enough to drown out the other ("Be-Bop-a-Lula" for the Rocker and "You Really Got Me" for the Mod). It's a Who movie through and through, produced by them, featuring their music, and with Pete Townshend contributing to the script. I'd say it's a little longer than it needs to be, just slightly bloated, but it fits neatly into a standard satisfying rock 'n' roll frame as a coming of age story. There's an outsider who finds himself at the margins, discovers the pleasures of what is at those margins, and soon enough gains the sad understanding that all ecstasies at the margins are unsustainable. Then it's a matter of living with that.

Give this movie credit. It has its feet firmly planted in rock 'n' roll history. The riotous showdown in the seaside town of Brighton that serves as the centerpiece of the picture, with the clash of Mods, Rockers, and police on a holiday weekend, is probably a reasonable representation of the riots of that time, in Brighton and elsewhere. And even as Neil Young was warbling about Johnny Rotten over on his album from that year, Rust Never Sleeps, John Lydon was screen-tested for the role of the main character here, Jimmy Cooper—rock 'n' roll hands across the generations, or something. Lydon was rejected ultimately because no insurer would cover him, and it was Phil Daniels, a long-time TV player with the right yobby face, who ended up with the part.

Jimmy has a scooter, unreliable amphetamine connections, a degrading day job, and enough taste and style to make him think he can get through on that. "I don't want to be the same as everybody else," he declares at one point. "That's why I'm a Mod." Journeyman director Franc Roddam was brought in to give it a polished finish, and it more or less spins out the story of the album faithfully. The best parts of this movie, as with any decent rock 'n' roll movie, are when the music plays. The snippets from the Quadrophenia album are maddeningly or blessedly short, depending on your point of view—I wished we could have heard a little more from it myself. Any time a dance scene happens, whether at a private party or out in clubs, the movie comes especially alive, with generous oldies selections at every turn: "Be My Baby," "Rhythm of the Rain," "Louie Louie," "Green Onions," "The Watusi," and like that. There are also Who songs dotted all over it, as well as concert posters and an iconic photo of Townshend on Jimmy's bedroom wall.

Sting was a special surprise, playing the uber-cool Ace Face. He's intended to be magnetic and charismatic and he pulls that off reasonably well, with style, a snappy suit, and some hilariously ferocious fighting technique. The camera adores him. Otherwise the movie is fairly routine, though it's a story I'm still easily caught up in. After the Brighton weekend delivers everything Jimmy could have hoped for, in the explosive sequence at the movie's center, his life immediately goes smash. He overplays his hand by quitting his job, loses his scooter in an accident, gets kicked out of his home. He retraces his steps all the way back to Brighton, where he finds out that Ace Face is a bellboy in his day job, which is pathetic in Jimmy's eyes.

The ending is muddled, explained by circumstances of the first scene in the movie, which is mostly forgotten by then. It looks like a Thelma and Louise ending, as a scooter goes hurtling off the dramatic seaside cliffs. Jimmy appears to have every reason in the world to commit suicide, but instead he turns and faces life anew, bowed but wiser. Except we only know that by going back and studying the first scene again, which isn't always practical. I kind of wanted to talk about this whole throwing oneself into eternity type of ending, which you see now and then, and maybe even corral a mention of David Bowie, but now that I realize that's not the ending of this movie at all I don't feel like getting into it.

1 comment:

  1. My own Mod phase was shorter than even Jimmy's but I saw Mods and Rockers everywhere in my suburban America turn of the '80s. Rockers were greasy narcissists that drove muscle cars and didn't like to read. Mods moved to the city, took drugs, and loved punk and disco. Quadrophenia one of those kind of things I almost always dread going back to b/c I'm sure it'll never be as cool as it felt to me in 1975. Even by the movie in '79, I was already jaded enough to like the oldies music best.