Criterion // 1979 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 27th, 2012
The Year Was 1964, and The Battle Was Just Beginning!
Those who tuned into the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics were treated to a "Symphony of British Music" that included everybody from Ray Davies to the Spice Girls. While some of the declining acts (David Bowie, the Rolling Stones) might merit more attention, the evening ended on a high note with The Who performing a number of their hits. They ended their portion of the show with "My Generation." The irony of a 68-year-old Roger Daltrey singing a song in which the most famous lyrics might be "Hope I die before I get old" was probably lost on a lot of people. However, The Who has always been a band that thrived on that kind of tension. They were sensitive but rocked hard. They looked back to early 1960s culture, but were increasingly contemporary with their use of synthesizers. That contrast carried over into their forays in the world of cinema as well. Ken Russell's Tommy is a Technicolor explosion of British whimsy and weirdness, capturing a certain psychedelic moment in 1960s history. In contrast, Quadrophenia looks back a little further to find darkness, drugs, and dissatisfaction in British youth culture. Though never more than a cult film, Criterion's excellent Quadrophenia (Blu-ray) release will please admirers and earn the film new fans.
In the early 1960s, there were two cultures competing for the hearts and minds of London's youths. The first were the Mods. They were stylish, wearing well-kept suits, and listened to soul and R&B tracks. They also did a lot of speed and rode around on scooters. Their mortal enemies were the Rockers, who were rude, crude, drove motorbikes, and listened to American rock 'n' roll. Clashes between the two groups were frequent and often violent. Declaring allegiance to one group meant the near-constant threat of retribution from the other. Quadrophenia follows a young Mod, Jimmy (Phil Daniels, Chicken Run), as he hangs with his mates and rebels against his family. His life has little direction and even less meaning, but soon the town of Brighton will erupt in violence and Jimmy will be in the middle of it.
The early 1960s were a strange time in the West, especially in Britain and America. By the early 1960s, Britain was only a decade away from the end of World War II-era rationing. The hope and apparent prosperity typically associated with the 1960s were not yet apparent, however. Though things were not as bad as they'd been in the immediate postwar years, there was still rampant dissatisfaction, especially among youth. They couldn't understand their parentsâ€™ generation, which had survived the deprivations of WWII, but they also had no model for moving forward, no way to make sense of how they fit into an economy and culture that was rapidly changing. It's no surprise then that many turned to drugs and violence.
Quadrophenia -- though it was made a decade and a half after the period in question -- captures the dark, speed-addled vibe of that period. Though it's based (rather loosely) on the Who album in question, Quadrophenia the film takes the album as a sonic backdrop, using it to provide mood rather than drive the plot.
At the center of Quadrophenia is Phil Daniels as Jimmy. His performance is right up there with any number of angry young British men in cinema, like Tim Roth in The Hit, Gary Oldman in Sid and Nancy, or David Thewlis in Naked. What's most impressive about his performance is the way in which he can switch from the happy-go-lucky young man out with his mates to the angsty loner roaming the ruined landscape of Britain without missing a beat. It's a stellar performance that really anchors the film. The rest of the cast -- including a young Sting! -- is great as well, but Daniels is the standout thirty years later.
The film also gets a lot of mileage out of its cinematography. I gather it's really easy to make England look like a gray wasteland, but Franc Waddam and cinematographer Brian Tufano (who went on to work with Danny Boyle in the 1990s) go beyond the call of duty in presenting us a vision of early 1960s Britain as a vast arena of unwell youth. The gritty, grainy look of the film only increases the feeling of Jimmy's alienation and makes the film strangely beautiful to watch.
Finally, of course, there's the music. Though we hear a lot about the British Invasion of the 1960s, it really should have been called the British Retaliation, as many blues and early rock 'n' roll artists made names for themselves in Britain long before the 1960s; the British Invasion was just those guys returning the favor. Quadrophenia knows that, and understands that the Who are influenced by soul and R&B as much as anything. The band's music isn't the main focus, but its energy and roots in Mod culture give the film a boost.
Then there is Quadrophenia (Blu-ray) Criterion has given a cult film the kind of release that fans could only have dreamed of. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded high definition image is gritty, but gorgeous. Colors have a distinctly 1970s tinge to them, and grain is an ever-present wash on the image. These are not bad things at all; rather they accurately represent the intentions of the filmmakers. Grain, however, does not compromise fine object detail. The print itself is in great condition, and no obvious digital manipulation has oversharpened or otherwise created artifacts in the image.
The two audio options shine for a film based on a bestselling album. First up is the original 2.0 stereo track in a lossless LPCM format. This track is well-balanced and clear of noise, with easily audible dialogue. The real treat, though, is the DTS-HD 5.1 track. Part of the original design of the album Quadrophenia was to have it a four-channel listening experience. Though it was technically unfeasible for mass consumption in the 1970s, Pete Townsend went back in the twenty-first century to the original masters to create a 5.1 surround mix. Criterion borrowed those elements to help mix the music, and combined it with the original dialogue and effects tracks. The result is stunning in its clarity and impressive in its immersive qualities.
Extras are also impressive, especially for a cult film over thirty years old. Things kick off with a commentary featuring director Franc Roddam and cinematographer Brian Tuffano. The pair are chatty, discussing everything from the technical aspects of the shoot to its roots in Mod fashion. Two interviews follow: one with the film's producer (and co-manager of the Who) Bill Curlbishley and the other with sound engineer Bob Pridden. Curlbishley talks briefly about how the film came to be and the band's involvement with it, while Pridden spends most of his time talking about the new 5.1 mix and the audio restoration. Three historical featurettes follow: two from French television and one from the BBC. These provide a nice window into how the film fits into late-1970s British film culture. Two trailers for the film are also included. The usual Criterion booklet includes an essay from critic Howard Hampton, a memoir by Mod Irish Jack, and liner notes from the original album by Pete Townshend.
I doubt that Quadrophenia will get a lot of play outside of Anglophile circles. It's a very particularly British portrait of an historical era, and I could see many American viewers having trouble connecting with the material. This is a release for the adventurous American (preferably already versed in British culture) or fans of the Who.
The extras are great, but more from the surviving members of the Who would have been the icing on the cake.
Fans of the film will appreciate both the excellent hi-def upgrade and the copious extras available on Quadrophenia (Blu-ray). The disc is a must-buy for fans, and worth a rental to anyone interested in 1960s and 1970s British music culture and cinema.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Not Rated