Though much of the music listened to by the so-called mods and rockers in mid-1960s England gets played on the same oldies stations today, there was a real cultural divide back then. The mods favored sharp, colorful suits, the music of The Kinks and The Who, riding scooters and popping pills. Clad in black leather, the rockers rode motorcycles and preferred the likes of Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley. In reality, they were two sides of the same coin - young people searching for identity with like-minded youths. Pete Townshend brilliantly told their tale in The Who’s 1973 masterpiece, Quadrophenia, and director Franc Roddam brought those images to life in the 1979 film of the same name, available as a two-DVD set as part of the Criterion Collection.
Quadrophenia tells the tale of Jimmy (Phil Daniels), a young mod in mid-1960s England. The film opens with him walking by the sea and we soon see him riding his beloved scooter and going off to buy pills, two very important things in his life. He goes to a dance, and it is there he sees Steph (Leslie Ash), a girl he fancies and wants to dance with. Steph is attached however, much to Jimmy’s chagrin. Jimmy returns home, cutting out news articles about fights between mods and rockers to add to his bedroom wall covered with pinup photos. As he lies on his bed, a photo of Townshend is directly above, perhaps comparing the two. While the members of The Who are not in the movie, their music provides much of the soundtrack and there are numerous visual references to the band.
Jimmy runs into a childhood friend of his, Kevin (Raymond Winstone), who has returned from the army. Jimmy is surprised to find out that Kevin has become a rocker. The music is all rock and roll to Kevin, but to Jimmy, being a mod is his life, from the clothes to the pills to the music to the method of transportation. It’s the first of many contrasts in the film showing the people in Jimmy’s life not taking things nearly as seriously as he does. Later, Jimmy is horrified to find out that Kevin was a victim of a retaliation assault on a group of rockers by the mods and screams for them to leave him alone.
After striking out with Steph again at a house party, a very worse for wear Jimmy staggers into work the next day, vomiting in the men’s room, his older coworkers ignoring his plight. Jimmy’s work patterns become more and more erratic, to the dismay of his supervisor, Mr. Fulford (Benjamin Whitrow). Jimmy comes home late, raising the ire of his mother (Kate Williams) but his father (Michael Elphick) is completely oblivious in his alcoholic haze. His father later accuses Jimmy of being schizophrenic and on drugs and essentially tells Jimmy to be himself, that he doesn’t need his gang, advice Jimmy doesn’t believe, or doesn’t want to believe. Later, when Jimmy watches The Who on Ready Steady Go!, his father declares that he can sing better than “that little ape.” The film does a great job of demonstrating the generation gap in scenes such as this one. To Jimmy’s father, the music was noise. To Jimmy, it was the soundtrack to his very life. In spite of Jimmy’s father’s faults, he could see his son going down the wrong path and wanted to steer him clear of it.
Jimmy and his friends plan to go to Brighton during a bank holiday and break into a pharmacy to steal the necessary pills for their trip. Jimmy runs into Steph again and, after getting some pills from him, she encourages him to go to Brighton, as she’ll be there. While at a dance, they see the leader of the mods, the Ace Face (Sting). The Ace Face is everything Jimmy wants to be - well dressed, good looking, with the best scooter and all the women. Steph is intrigued by the Ace Face, which makes Jimmy jealous. While Jimmy idolizes the Ace Face, it kills him that the girl he likes is swooning over him. Any guy who has ever liked a girl, only to see her go to the quarterback of the high school football team instead, can relate.
Jimmy finally gets to be alone with Steph in an alley while the mods and rockers fight at Brighton. Jimmy later joins the fray, only to be arrested and sent to court with several mods and rockers, including the Ace Face. Jimmy returns to find Steph has taken up with his friend Dave (Mark Wingett). It is here that the film once again shows that Jimmy’s mod friends don’t buy into their lifestyle with the same zeal as Jimmy does. Steph is young and wants to date around. Jimmy wants to conquer the world with his mod queen by his side. Depressed, Jimmy returns to Brighton only to find out the Ace Face was not what he thought he was either. Everything in Jimmy’s life had been a fraud, leading to his drug-fueled breakdown. Daniels brilliantly portrays Jimmy’s further descent into depression as he ponders the next move in his life.
In addition to all the classic Who songs in the film is a great selection of other songs from the period. Among those are The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. The DVD features a number of extras, including an interview with Bill Curbishley, who coproduced the film and used to co-manage The Who; discussion with Bob Pridden about the audio and video restoration for the film; and two French programs from the 1960s about mods and rockers, with early footage of The Who. The DVD’s booklet is very detailed, with an essay by critic Howard Hampton, Townshend’s liner notes from the original album, and a 1985 personal history from original mod, Irish Jack.
Quadrophenia effectively uses the Who’s music to underscore the movie’s theme of the need for acceptance. Rather than become the story, the songs color it, enhancing every scene they are in. Quadrophenia is a great coming-of-age story and a wonderful period piece of an era long past. The restored picture and sound make the Criterion Collection a must own for fans of the film.