The Who's 1973 double album Quadrophenia represented the pinnacle of the English rock band's outsized ambition, both as musicians and storytellers. Guitarist and creative spearhead Pete Townshend's writing style lent itself naturally and consistently to the visual realm, early on painting small-scale portraits of infidelity ("A Quick One, While He's Away") and sexual affliction ("Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand") before graduating into expansive, cross-media narratives such as Tommy, their beloved 1969 rock-opera-cum-hallucinogenic-musical-extravaganza. Quadrophenia, however, represented something different for the group. In place of playful fantasias involving Pinball Wizards and baked beans were now first-hand tales sketching a rising British youth contingent, one based in both social realism and raw coming-of-age revelations. The material would prove inherently cinematic, and it wasn't long before Townshend's story of a young Mod's growing disillusion with society's strictures, his youth movement's isolationist tendencies, and love's inevitable defeats would be turned into a feature film.
Franc Roddam's 1979 realization of Quadrophenia, from a script co-written by himself, Dave Humphries, and Martin Stellman, was, like the band's gradual maturation, an unexpectedly dark and pessimistic work, yet it remains one of the most honest and detailed documents of the mid-'60s mod subculture in existence. Carrying the admitted influence of contemporaries Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Quadrophenia evidences a similar fascination with the young and the working class, a universal milieu given a very British rendering by Roddam and his eye for period design and sociological nuance. But unlike the more optimist strain of concurrent British cinema, Quadrophenia is a largely bleak chronicle of one young man sent kicking and screaming through post-adolescent disenchantment. Not for nothing did Roddam change his original, much darker ending, which climaxed with the protagonist's suicide, but the film's rebel-cry culmination at the cliffs of Beachy Head doesn't hold out promise for our protagonist so much as forced resignation to the encroaching threat of adulthood.
In that sense, the film betrays a spiritual affiliation with the New Hollywood movement that was about to collapse in on itself across the pond; indeed, it's not difficult to conflate the plight of Jimmy (a flailing, kinetic Phil Daniels) with that of American forebears such as Benjamin Braddock, Brewster McCloud, Duane Jackson, Harold Chasen, and the American Graffiti class of 1962. And like the films associated with those indelible characters, Quadrophenia remains unusually fresh and applicable even today. As Jimmy flits between speed-addled all-nighters, raging scooter misadventures, and desperate declarations of infatuation (his love interest, Steph, played by the beautiful, charming Leslie Ash, is composed and content on the outside, but just as prone to restless pleasures, courting and eventually submitting to the advances of Jimmy's thought-to-be good friend), society and the media look on to the attendant clash between his suavely outfitted Mods and the leather-clad rockers with a uneasy fascination. As tensions mount, so too does Jimmy's life careen out of his control with an uncontainable and passionate sense of turmoil, which would soon fuel the similarly cloistered punk movement.
Not only are Jimmy's friends and his self-prescribed subcultural rank not what they seem, so too is his idol, the Ace Face (a hilariously robotic Sting, performing with a remove which he would soon turn into a career of its own), a regular Joe working a dead-end job (one of Townshend's plot points most closely adhered to from its origins in the song "Bell Boy"), just another symbol of his perspective-altering arc from excitable youth to wandering soul. And it's this simultaneous adherence and independence from the Who's parent rock opera that ultimately sets the film apart from so many other cross-promotional projects. Quadrophenia the film is fully formed and self-contained enough to stand on its own. Roddam even holds back on utilizing the band's music for much of the film before reconciling Townshend's narrative with that of his own in a wonderful, wordless denouement soundtracked by both album tracks and specifically commissioned Who songs, dovetailing, as its title implies, the film and the album's many disparate thematic and contextual elements. It's a lovely microcosm of both the band and Roddam's artistic vision, one that does justice to both the Who's grandest artistic statement and to a subculture that helped spawn a band that continues to inspire to this day.
The Criterion Collection's Quadrophenia Blu-ray trumps the original, out-of-print DVD in every conceivable department. Their new 1080p digital transfer brings out the films inherent grain structure, producing a highly immersive picture. There are a few unavoidable damage marks on the print, but barring these, this is an authentic, well-contrasted transfer. Colors are appropriately warm and the overcast English pallor is both rich and palpable, accentuating cinematographer Brian Tufano's deep-focus photography. Black levels are well balanced and, overall, the image is unexpectedly clear and pleasingly film-like.
Sound is even more impressive. The original 2.0 stereo soundtrack is preserved for posterity's sake in remastered form, but a new 5.1 surround mix is the highlight of the entire package. Supervised by the remaining members of the Who and the band's sound engineer Bob Pridden, this new, remixed soundtrack is revelatory. Songs literally explode from the speakers, each element balanced and placed just-so in their respective channels. Dialogue is likewise crisp and boisterous, with the lossless track creating a dynamic back and forth between words and music. This is one of the most commendable and successful soundtrack remixes the Blu-ray format has thus afforded.
The extras supplied are varied, entertaining, and consistently informative about both the film and the culture that spawned the Quadrophenia narrative. A commentary track by Franc Roddam and Tufano (recorded separately) goes some way toward contextualizing the film's plot and characters, as well as revealing many production details and personal anecdotes from the set. Two interviews—one from the Who's co-manager and the film's co-producer, Bill Curbishley, and one from Pridden on the remastered soundtrack—bring the band's side of the story into clearer focus, with accounts of Pete Townshend and frontman Roger Daltry's involvement with both the production and the resulting soundtrack. Three vintage news programs—two French segments reporting on the Mods and rocker culture featuring some very funny interviews with some rather naïve Mods and a handful of interspersed early Who footage, and a BBC program on the film's production, with on-set footage of Daltry and the actors—round out the digital supplements. A starkly collated and informative booklet amends the package, with an essay on the film by Howard Hampton, a personal history of the Mod movement by Irish Jack, one of the original Mods, and a superfluous reprint of Townshend's original album notes.
One of the most honest and detailed documents of the mid-'60s mod subculture in existence, Franc Roddam's 1979 cinematic realization of the Who's classic rock opera arrives on Blu-Ray in a superlative A/V presentation. [Slant]