“Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979) is the closest thing England has produced to its own Mean Streets, but its most invigorating aspect is the way it systematically upends expectations, frustrating ready comparisons. It shares Mean Streets’ dedication to emotional veracity, but its midsixties streets are meaner, more inhospitable—far from the sensual precincts of Little Italy (and from the madding elites of Swinging London). Period songs aren’t given Scorsese’s seductive, exhilarating sheen; these kids aren’t all right, and they’re too wired on pills to really take pleasure in anything but human-pinball aggression. Using the Who’s heavyweight score primarily in flashes and spurts, for aural color or outbursts of blocked feeling, the film subtly distances itself from its own soundtrack, holding the music at a certain remove.
You’d naturally expect Quadrophenia to be some kind of musical; after all, the movie is based on the Who’s 1973 double-album song cycle. That work came out the same year as Pink Floyd’s equally alienated, overweening The Dark Side of the Moon, and both are headphone operas, half critiquing and half celebrating the space where youth culture turns to solipsism. Dreaming up a convoluted story line about a young, amphetamine-addled head case called Jimmy, composer-librettist Pete Townshend hit on the catchy idea of doubling Jimmy’s schizophrenia, making it “quadrophenia.” On the basis of Ken Russell’s gaudy Tommy (1975), with its nonstop barrage of acid queens, disgorged baked beans, and Roger Daltrey’s Shirley Temple–as-Jesus curls, audiences could be forgiven for anticipating—or dreading—a second roaring helping of the band’s music transferred to the screen in wall-to-wall sensory overkill.
Quadrophenia is the anti-Tommy, however: ruthless realism subsumes motor scooter spectacle, and the Who’s music is deployed sparingly until the last section of the picture; even then, it seems a discrete, almost Brechtian counterpoint to the action rather than a direct expression of what’s happening on-screen. What Roddam has done is to make it impossible to take anything for granted; in the middle of stifling kitchen-sink reality, you (like Jimmy) may feel you are slipping into a fugue state, caught up in a snatch of music, a reverie of escape or revenge. Or just as suddenly, a casual word or gesture may wake you from a dream of freedom, potency, and sex, to find you’re back sinking in the quicksand of the British caste system, without a lifeline in sight.”
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