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The Who’s 1972 double magnus opus Quadrophenia is often regarded as the pinnacle of both the band, and songwriter Pete Townshend’s creativity. It’s a recording that pushed forward with a concept, a la their 1969 masterpiece Tommy. However, although the works are connected by a slim thread of self-discovery that is where the similarity ends.
It was only a matter of time before Quadrophenia, like Tommy, would make it to the big screen. Unlike the movie Tommy, Quadrophenia was not destined to be a psychedelic musical by Ken Russell. Instead it was to be a gritty tale in bleak surroundings, as the protagonist searches for hope and escapism from a cruel world which offers him nothing and refuses to understand him.
The film is set in post-war London at the start of the 60s as the youth who grew up in the aftermath of World War II search for an identity and culture to cling to. Director Franc Roddam (Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) manages to mirror the mood of late-70’s Thatcher’s Britain in a setting over a decade previous, adding to why Quadrophenia resonated like it did upon release.
Acting as a time capsule forty years later to both eras, the story unfolds as the audience is brought into the world of Jimmy, played by Phil Daniels (Blur‘s Parklife). On the verge between adolescence and adulthood, his office job is monotonous, and he lives for the escapism of alcohol, scooters, drugs and the Mod sect he is a part of – a Mod being a young person of a subculture characterised by a smart stylish appearance, the riding of motor scooters, and a liking for soul music.
Jimmy and his fellow mods spend their time ‘hanging-out’ and crossing paths with other subcultures of the day including Rockers (greasers). These were the rebellious outcasts who shaped their style on Marlon Brando from The Wild One, the slicked-back hair of James Dean and the rebel rousing sound of Gene Vincent. Together perhaps the Mods and Rockers in some ways were responding to the actions of their fathers who fought in a war. Not wanting to be less, they sought to create their own war.
The scooter is essential to the story of Quadrophenia. It is the ultimate symbol of status but also the launch pad for freedom, and the fantasy that it can take you away from your life to a better one. In fact, it even works as a form of icebreaker between strangers thanks to its motorized flag – a call to attract like-minded individuals and even the basis to form a romance as Jimmy fruitlessly chases Steph (Leslie Ash).
The symbolism of the scooter comes to the fore within Quadrophenia as the trip from London to Brighton is planned. The film is based on true events from a Whitsun weekend in May 1964. There were riots in Brighton between fractions of Mods and Rockers over a two-day period. This forms the aggressive backdrop to the story, as one of Jimmy’s friends is attacked by Rockers, and so a retaliation is carried out. Jimmy, along with others beat a Rocker, which turns out to be our lead character’s childhood friend Kevin (a young Ray Winstone). Although he realises his old friend is the victim, he does not stop the attack, proving the power and sway of these subcultures, and how they are viewed as being above everything, even friendship.
As the story shifts focus, and location to Brighton, the Mod fractions gather, and drive their army of scooters to the seaside resort for an almost religious gathering. Clashes with Rockers, the law and of course in-fighting for attention ensues as Jimmy encounters an idol, Ace Face played by Sting. He is a blonde haired, confident Mod who happens to own the biggest scooter, get all the attention, and is obviously wealthy – the latter shown when he bails Jimmy and his friends out of prison after a police roundup.
This feeling of camaraderie and acceptance is what Jimmy craves. Eventually his Brighton adventure ends and his scooter is damaged. Wanting to have that same feeling he plans to return to Brighton and find Ace Face. Taking a train and subjecting his mind to more amphetamines, on arrival Jimmy finds that reality is uncaring. Ace Face is just an undistinguished bellboy at a Brighton hotel who has nothing more to offer him. In anger, Jimmy steals Ace’s scooter, his undeserved status symbol, and heads out to Beachy Head.
The name Quadrophenia, is similar to the album, as it splits the character of Jimmy into four parts, each part representative of a Who band member. In the movie adaptation, it signifies the inner conflict for an identity from four parts, the struggles Jimmy faces. Is he the romantic? The tough Mod? The bellboy, like his hero? Or is he Doctor Jimmy? The latter is a fourth character, who surfaces as Jimmy slips into a breakdown, dragged down by drugs, apathy and the feelings of abandonment.
The ending of the movie is also the start. Jimmy drives the stolen scooter over a cliff, jumping off just in time and emerging from the crash in the evening sun. He destroys all the pretenses of his character and discovers himself.
Quadrophenia is one of the greatest movies ever to connect with young people on a realistic level. It tackles the overwhelming factors of life which are daunting to any fraction within society, be it Mod, Rocker or even Punk. It may look as if it has aged but in truth the message at the core of the movie will never be out of trend.
In 1979 a resurgence in the Mod movement was fully established. The popularity of The Jam and the ska music of The Specials had forged identities in the atmosphere of post-punk. The Rockers had always existed and the new wave of Metal music became their soundtrack. When Quadrophenia premiered in London reports soon surfaced of the clashes between Mods and Rockers just as it did in the early 60s. Life imitating art imitating an era.