As rock operas go, Franc Roddam’s 1979 adaptation of The Who’s Quadrophenia isn’t particularly operatic. Songs from the group’s 1973 concept album play key roles on the film’s soundtrack, particularly at its beginning and end, and Quadrophenia’s a better movie for their inclusion. The film opens with “The Real Me” blaring over images of star Phil Daniels riding his scooter through working-class London neighborhoods, looking confident in contrast to the lyrics, and it climaxes with Roger Daltrey singing “Love, Reign O’er Me” as Daniels rides someone else’s scooter along some seaside cliffs, the visuals matching the high drama of the vocals. The Who’s album also gives shape to the story, the tale of an early-’60s teenager who gets swept up in the Mod subculture and travels with his friends to Brighton looking for a fight with their hated rivals, The Rockers. But remove Quadrophenia the album, and Quadrophenia the movie would still offer a remarkable depiction of the tribal codes of the era, and one kid’s potentially fatal case of teen angst.
Out of school but still living at home, Daniels’ protagonist fills his days doing grunt work at an ad firm and his nights cruising the streets, popping pills, chasing after the latest fashions, dancing the latest dances to American R&B and British rock acts inspired by the same, hating the pompadour-and-motorcycle-favoring Rockers, and pining after a seemingly unattainable object of Mod desire. He sleeps next to a wall lined with pinups and headlines of Mods vs. Rocker clashes (and beneath the image of a young Pete Townshend), dreaming of participating in the resort-town melees that have started to become Bank Holiday traditions. He gets his chance, too, in a sequence that re-creates the thrill and terror of a Brighton street scuffle; but fulfilling his dream comes at an unexpected, if intangible, cost.
Beautifully shot by Brian Tufano, Roddam’s film bursts with details of Mod life, a crucial choice for reasons beyond the need to recreate a bygone era. In a performance filled with twitchiness and vulnerability, Daniels plays a character who feels he needs to get the details right in order to be authentic, not just as a Mod but as a person. “You gotta be somebody, ain’t ya?,” Daniels says early in the film, and for him being somebody means playing the part of the Mod to the hilt—though he eventually discovers the limitations of that choice. Even when he does everything right, he still looks like he’s trying too hard. And when he does start to feel like a true Mod, he discovers that authenticity can be its own kind of pose. Quadrophenia mirrors his experience by capturing both the appeal of Mod life and its darker implications. Wearing sharp clothes and dancing to Motown and James Brown in nightclubs and at house parties, the Mods look cool, but the pill-addled look in the eyes of Daniels and his friends suggests it’s desperation that drives the dance. They’re looking for definition and direction, and they only think they’ve found it in the grooves of the music and the movements of the dance.
Key features: Plenty, which is helpful, since context only enhances the experience of the film. Best among them are Roddam’s commentary track and a pair of French news segments attempting to explain Mods and Rockers to ’60s audiences across the channel.