After the success of Tommy (1975), director Ken Russell’s flamboyant adaptation of the Who’s first “rock opera” LP, it was inevitable that someone would tackle the British band’s follow-up opus, Quadrophenia. And while Franc Roddam’s movie of Quadrophenia is more grounded and mature than Russell’s silly phantasmagoria, Roddam’s movie is just as unsatisfying as its predecessor. Set during the clashes that erupted in the ’60s between two factions of British youth culture—old-school “Rockers” in leather jackets and new-style “Mods” in natty suits—the picture is primarily a straight-ahead dramatic presentation, but it features a few fanciful scenes that feel like early music videos, and in one or two key moments, Who songs on the soundtrack directly correlate to what’s happening within the frame. So it’s not a musical, but then sometimes it is a musical—sort of.
As if this indecisive approach wasn’t sufficiently distracting, the script (credited to three writers, though the real underlying author is Who tunesmith Pete Townshend) suffers from an overabundance of symbolic events and a shortage of narrative momentum. As does the LP on which the picture is based, the movie follows Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels), an angry young Mod who resents his job, his parents, and any other entity that represents authority. Yet for all his seemingly iconoclastic rebellion, he’s a joiner in a big way, driving the same scooter and wearing the same garb as all of his Mod mates. After a series of disillusioning events—most of which are triggered by Jimmy’s obnoxious behavior—Jimmy becomes alienated from every aspect of society, not just authority figures.
The last half-hour of the picture starts to finally feel as if it’s going somewhere, with potent Who numbers including “5:15” and “Love Reign O’er Me” accompanying shots of a drugged-out Jimmy leaving civilization behind to experience a vaguely defined epiphany on the White Cliffs of Dover. Had the picture concluded with more definitive imagery, the whole story might have felt more purposeful. Alas, Quadrophenia comprises little more than well-photographed narrative meandering. There’s some great stuff here and there, like re-creations of nightclub excitement and street-fight chaos, and the acting is generally good; beyond the intense Daniels and the appealing leading lady Leslie Ash, the picture features a young Ray Winstone, as Jimmy’s ill-fated Rocker pal, and future rock god Sting, in a small role as a charismatic Mod. But given the halfhearted blending of the drama and musical genres, the diffuse quality of the screenplay, and even the hard-to-penetrate working-class British accents, Quadrophenia is not an easy movie to love.