Wednesday, September 19, 2012

169. QUADROPHENIA (1979)

This teen drama set in 1965 -- adapted from The Who's 1973 rock opera follow-up to TOMMY by Dave Humphries (THE HAUNTING OF JULIA), Martin Spellman (DEFENSE OF THE REALM) and its director, Franc Roddam -- has a cult following but, despite some terrific scenes and some memorable characters (like the gnomish, lovesick, little pre-punk girl played by Toyah Willcox), it feels even more narratively half-baked than Pete Townshend's musical scenarios tend to be.

Why is this character Jimmy (Phil Daniels, pictured) our protagonist? What is his arc? We know he's a Mod, which sets up what begins to be a conflict as his boyhood pal Kevin (Ray Winstone) returns from a stint in the Army as a Rocker, but this thread peters out when Kevin is mistakenly beaten by a group of Jimmy's mates, who mistake him on sight for another Rocker who's owed their revenge. What does Jimmy get out of the pills he takes? What attracts him to being a Mod? Some of these questions are addressed by the album, but the album also presents Jimmy as a romantic, which is not at all how Daniels portrays him, which reminded me more than once of a teenage James Woods. He's clearly hung up on Steph (Leslie Ash, pictured), an attractive, pally sort of girl who's looking for the handsomest date and the best time, but he's not shy about her -- maybe the speed helps him to overcome that shyness, but we're never shown the internal struggle. As the narrative progresses (one hesitates to call it a story, it's so elliptical), bits and pieces of the rock opera filter into the soundtrack like pins on a map, not unlike the Who pics and posters amid the naked ladies pinned to Jimmy's bedroom wall, to remind us this is an adaptation that's headed at least to the final song if not a final point. The synthesizer-washed music feels so much not of this time, and so much not spiritually emanated from its obnoxious hero, that the film almost certainly would have managed better without it -- with the exception of that necessary closing song, "Love, Reign On Me."

Where the film ends up is with Jimmy at the brink of an awakening, which is where most stories involving awakenings begin to be told. He reaches a point, after a series of disappointments, where he can suddenly see that the things most meaningful to him, were just a laugh to everyone else. The only gesture toward a definition of the title is a shot of Jimmy's moping expression reflected in a battery of four rear-view mirrors on the right side of his Lambretta scooter. (I also noticed that Sting -- who's very stiff in this, especially when he dances -- drives a GS scooter, thus bearing his real name initials, which probably annoyed him.) I'm not saying QUADROPHENIA is bad; it's far from my favorite Who album in the first place, and the film is not anything remotely connected to my own life experience, nor does it give me enough reasons to care about Jimmy's. TOMMY, which was, also had the benefit of Ken Russell directing it, which gave the loose storyline a coherent and compelling visual vocabulary that made it substantially irresistible.

QUADROPHENIA was recently issued (by Criterion on Blu-ray and as a two-disc DVD set) in its uncut version, which includes some frontal male nudity in a bathhouse scene. Their new presentation also introduces a magnificent new 5.1 mix that brilliantly scatters the different sonic layers of the various Who tracks, giving it something close to the Quintophonic presence of Russell's TOMMY. (It needs to be played loud because some of the dialogue becomes muffled at lower volumes -- for example, I missed the former, ringing clarity of the party bloke who finishes Roger Daltrey's "Why don't you all just f-f-f-f-" in "My Generation" with an exuberant "Fuck off!", though it should be there in the original 2.0 mix also included.) The 1.77:1 framing looks beautifully refreshed and contemporary, with added sheen and depth, totally belying the fact that this film is now over 30 years old. The extras include a feature-length director's commentary, interviews with The Who's co-manager and sound engineer, archival set documentation, and more. A booklet with notes by critic Nick James and Pete Townshend's original album liner notes is also provided.

Viewed via Criterion Blu-ray.

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