Part rock opera, jukebox musical and angry young man opus, the film Quadrophenia exists in a nether space between nostalgia and nausea. Perhaps it’s fitting that Pete Townshend named the Who’s second most famous rock opera as a weird (and weirdly misspelled) derivation from schizophrenia. The movie version of young Jimmy the Mod’s journey of alienation is as brilliant as it is bewildering, much like the blood feud between mod and rocker that provides the background history to the film. For younger and first-time viewers, yes, this is history. The mods, young Londoners from working- and middle-class backgrounds who dressed in stylish suits and army jackets as they zipped around on festooned Italian scooters, were real. So were the rockers, their black leather clad nemeses who rode motorcycles and had less diverse taste in music. If these differences seem superficial, Quadrophenia makes that abundantly clear. A memorable early scene portrays an almost too literal dick swinging contest between Jimmy and Kevin—played by a young Ray Winstone—dueling rock songs naked in a bath tub; what seems like the oddest setting for a gangland turf war quickly becomes a homoerotic reunion, as the two realize they are old friends who have simply chosen different sides in a style war. In fact, Kevin might be the only real friend Jimmy has in the entire damn movie. In retrospect, one of the biggest flaws is the failure to go full on Bromeo and Juliet in a reappropriation of West Side Story’s source material.
Instead, the movie settles for being the meaner, bleaker cousin to another British invasion band’s movie, A Hard Day’s Night. Which isn’t at all a bad thing. Indeed, it’s arguably the drug-fueled antidote that the Beatles themselves would have deemed necessary by 1979. It’s also telling that Who only appear in Quadrophenia via mostly anachronous references: a “My Generation” record that turns a tame party into a sexy Mod mosh; a performance on TV that Jimmy air drums along with to his dad’s consternation; posters on Jimmy’s wall; Jimmy playing pinball with his hipster shades, a visual allusion to the blind prodigy of Tommy. Townshend’s inspiration for Quadrophenia was the band’s early fans, and it’s clear that this movie is more about youthful working-class alienation than the liberating power of rock. Interestingly, one of the major changes director Franc Roddam made to the source material was moving Jimmy to a menial office job from the grimier dustman position—towards the end of the movie, Jimmy’s frenemy Dave insults him by declaring trash collecting as his best career option. Presumably the decision was both easier to film and suggests the idea of white-collar mobility as a trap, undermining the rebellious nature of the mods.
What exactly are the mods rebelling against? It’s not totally clear, even as they riot through the streets of Brighton against both the rockers and the coppers. The scenes of youthful police protests still resonate, though without the righteous working-class anger, there’s a definite whiff of nihilism. Again, though, this isn’t as much of a flaw as a statement. Because it seems clear that this is a punk rock movie in disguise. Johnny Rotten was originally supposed to play Jimmy, but the production couldn’t insure the volatile Sex Pistols frontman. The most iconic casting that did make the cut was a just-on-the-verge-of-superstardom Sting as Ace Face, a mod hero of sorts. As Ace Face, Sting scooters and struts around in black vinyl, a wardrobe choice that distinguishes him from everyone else while also obscuring the difference between mod and rocker. Is he a mocker? It’s unclear. For a relatively low budget , semi-guerilla production, this may have just been how Sting dressed in the late 1970’s. Yet Ace Face’s fall from grace seals Jimmy’s disaffection, and his symbolic suicide-by-scooter of the white cliffs of Beachy Head doubles as a killing of his idol.
If the class politics have muddled over time, the gender and sexual politics have arguably become more interesting. The mods take pills, a feminine drug in the time of “Mother’s Little Helper” and Valley of the Dolls. The Mod girls have short haircuts, obscuring gender, which seems to be the main ideological divide between mod and rocker. Steph’s sexual conquest of three mods subverts her outwardly feminine appearance. Jimmy masturbates like a woman, then later applies makeup. If there’s a coherent idea in this movie, it’s a critique of the arbitrary divisions we make, including the male/female divide. In the end, it seems like what literally drives Jimmy (and Sting’s scooter) to the edge is his failure to reconcile the rebellious schisms of youth culture with the push towards mass unity. As Jimmy puts it:
All photos from Quadrophenia.