Plenty of films that came out of England in the ’60s featured a mod aesthetic, but the one that definitively captured the mod subculture was Franc Roddam’s 1979 film Quadrophenia. Based on the 1973 concept album of the same name by The Who, the film, like the rock opera on which it’s based, is both a celebration and a critique of the subculture — which, by the time of its release, had already found a revival. It’s a brilliant piece of cinema that captures the counterculture and moral panic in post-war England, an early nostalgic look at a movement that defined and era and influenced fashion, film, and particularly music in the latter half of the 20th century.
Quadrophenia is an odd film, for sure, and one that shouldn’t work the way it does. It’s based on The Who album, but unlike Ken Russell’s adaptation of Tommy, it’s not a musical. (Which I’m grateful for, because Ken Russell’s Tommy, while entertaining, is absolutely batshit crazy.) Instead, it follows Jimmy Cooper (played by Phil Daniels), an angsty mod living in London whose derision for his parents and his job as a mail clerk in an advertising agency is matched by his enthusiasm for Levis, methamphetamine, and The Who. To say that the film’s plot meanders is an understatement: we watch as Jimmy goes to work, goes to dance clubs and parties, and goes to Brighton on bank holiday, neither finding out why he’s so frustrated nor discovering any solutions to his angst.
“I don’t want to be like everybody else!” Jimmy yells at his father. The irony of that statement is pretty obvious as the film moves along, as Jimmy nearly disappears in a sea of mods, who all wear the same green poncho and ride the same Vespa scooter. What he does want is also up in the air. He has a crush on Steph, a gorgeous blonde who resembles Marianne Faithfull. She seems to fancy Jimmy (they do, eventually, have sex in a Brighton alleyway while the mods and rockers brawl on the street a block away) but not as much as the more handsome, mature mods in sharp suits. He is taken with Ace Face, a bleach-blond mod played by Sting, who the London friends encounter in Brighton; Ace Face, who has very little dialogue, stands as a symbol of the perfect mod style that Jimmy seems unable to achieve. (The irony, of course, is that he turns out to be just like Jimmy: in the end, our hero discovers he’s just a bellboy at a Brighton hotel, which quashes Jimmy’s fantasies about the glamorous life Ace Face must lead.) And Jimmy harbors much resentment, like his mod peers, against rockers, even though he discovers that his childhood friend, Kevin, has grown up and covered himself in leather and pomade.
It’s hard not to watch Quadrophenia and chuckle at the dramatics of the teen angst on display and the silly rivalry between the mods and rockers. The film doesn’t depict the similarities between the mods and rockers with subtlety — Jimmy and Kevin are reunited in a London bathhouse, and it’s only when they get together after putting on their respective uniforms that they realize they’re members of two opposing factions. The reasons why the mods and rockers are feuding in the first place is never really explained, and it’s rather hilarious to know that the real-life Brighton riots occurred in early summer 1964, a time when, in America, the Civil Rights Movement was reaching its apex. The superficial hatred of the other is not contained to a single location, but that animosity certainly manifests itself in interesting ways across the globe.
But neither the film nor the album Quadrophenia is in the business of explaining human behavior; rather, it exists to depict it in a hyperrealistic way. The movie achieves that, and does it with so much style and grit. In the end, however, the film is told entirely through Pete Townshend’s words and Roger Daltrey’s vocals; the third act, during which Jimmy has a near-breakdown, serves as a high-concept music video, with the closing tracks of Quadrophenia scoring the action. The film ends on an ambiguous note, with Jimmy driving Ace’s Vespa off the chalk cliffs at Beachy Head. Jimmy’s body is notably missing in the fall — does he go over the edge, too, or is it a symbolic suicide, with Jimmy rejecting the subculture in which he belongs (and that leads to his mental break)? The film offers no easy answer, and one can assume that, like every frustrated teenager, Jimmy slowly finds his way through life the way everyone else does: by growing up.
On May 18 and 19, 1964, England’s seaside towns were rocked by historic youth riots that pitted mods against rockers. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of that defining subcultural moment, we’ve declared it Mod Week at Flavorwire. Click here to follow our coverage.