After achieving success with the filmed version of their “rock opera” Tommy in 1975, British rockers The Who decided to take another run at the form by turning their Quadrophenia album into a movie as well. That album tells the story of Jimmy, a “quadrophenic” (as opposed to schizophrenic) young drug addict, and one might assume that a film centered on this protagonist would have led to another surrealistic, hallucinogenic opus like Tommy, where the title character’s lack of senses met its opposite in director Ken Russell’s baroque style. Yet director and co-writer Franc Roddam takes Quadrophenia in a very different direction: far from being an opera with wall-to-wall music, his film employs The Who’s songs only at key moments and opts for social realism over rock and roll spectacle. The upshot is a surprisingly understated – yet undeniably confrontational – reimagining of what constitutes a “rock and roll film.”
Given Roddam’s background in television documentaries (Quadrophenia was his first feature film), the emphasis on an anthropological study of ritual and behavior is not surprising. His Jimmy, as played by Phil Daniels, is a lovelorn “mod” during the time that London youths divided themselves into mods (who dressed in sharp clothes and rode scooters) and rockers (who wore leather jackets and preferred motorcycles). Roddam follows Jimmy and his friends closely in a tale that’s reminiscent of similar coming of age tales like I Vitelloni and Mean Streets, but he gives their tale a larger social context than those movies. Quadrophenia is an intimate portrait of one troubled young man, but it’s also a snapshot of an era – and the sense of precision in the visual expression of that era is remarkable.
Roddam’s director of photography on Quadrophenia was Brian Tufano, BSC, a frequent collaborator from his BBC days. Working on documentaries, Roddam and Tufano had developed a raw, energetic style that they transposed to fiction with Quadrophenia – all the while drawing on the films of Ken Loach and the tradition of British “angry young man” dramas by Lindsay Anderson (This Sporting Life) and others. Yet Quadrophenia is vivid in a way that earlier kitchen sink dramas aren’t; the milieu of fashion-conscious mods and rockers enables Tufano to employ saturated colors that pop without compromising the story’s sense of naturalism. The result is a distinctive style that is simultaneously drab and vibrant; the deep-focus compositions and wide-angle lenses that Tufano favors allow for a point of view that is unsparing and elegant in equal measures. It’s the perfect look for this subject matter, and one that looks forward to Tufano’s later work on a similar tale of disaffected youths, Trainspotting.
Tufano worked closely with Criterion to digitally restore the film, and the new Blu-ray transfer made from that restoration is gorgeous. The film’s relatively low budget forced Tufano to push his film stocks to their limits, but contrast, tonality, and clarity are all excellent here, with sharp detail on every plane of the deep-focus imagery. The disc also contains a new 5.1 surround mix that draws from multiple sound elements, not only those created for the 1979 film itself but also tapes from the Who archives and other sources. The resulting uncompressed soundtrack is powerful and immersive, with strong separation and robust music tracks.
The extra features on the disc begin with an outstanding commentary track by Roddam and Tufano that provides a wealth of production history and technical information. Additional interviews with Roddam, as well as behind-the-scenes footage from the set, are available in a half-hour episode of the BBC series “Talking Pictures” from 1979. Further supplements include two vintage television programs on real-life mods and rockers, a 13-minute interview with Who manager and Quadrophenia co-producer Bill Curbishley, and an eight-minute featurette on the film’s restoration and sound mix. A pair of theatrical trailers completes the package.