Wednesday, 24 March 2010


[This was posted at Touching from a Distance yesterday - I've realised if I don't post it here I won't have backed it up.]

Apparently, Phil Daniels' autobiography has just been published. He's one of those actors who's indelibly and definitively associated with a single role: Jimmy from the film Quadrophenia. And as Quadrophenia's thirtieth anniversary has just passed I thought it would be good to tip my pork pie hat to what's one of my favourite films.

It's usually described as a cult film, which I take to mean it wasn't that successful commercially when first released but it's subsequently achieved a small but loyal following. I guess that's all a matter of fact rather than opinion. But sometimes defining a film as cult becomes a form of condescension, a way to dismiss something from serious consideration. Quadrophenia is no exception.

Most critical references earmark it as an historical curiosity, interesting mostly as a cataloguing of the Mods and their mid-sixties battles with the rockers; as much social history as cinema. Perhaps this is unsurprising. After all it's probably not unreasonable to assume that a film based on a 'rock opera' - the even more overblown and pompous offspring of an already overblown and pompous genre, the 'concept album' - is unlikely to have much genuine quality.

I must admit that when I first saw it about thirty years ago, I watched it primarily for the Mods and the music. But it soon became evident to me that there was something else going on here, something a lot more interesting.

It's not just a great coming of age movie - and the sort of coming of age experienced by a working-class Londoner rather than a Ferris Bueller - it's also a fascinating story of the disillusionment of a young idealist.

Jimmy's estranged from his family and bored by his work. He finds an outlet for his youthful capacity for belief in the Mod cult he and his friends follow - something that gives them a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose, albeit one confined to various forms of subversive hedonism and acts of self-assertion that range from the stylish to the violent (and sometimes both at the same time). The peak of this idealistic commitment arrives in the seaside resort of Brighton one bank holiday in a Dionysian orgy of violence punctuated by back-alley sex.

However, from this point, disillusion ensues. He's committed himself to being a Mod. But just like many a transformative human project the whole thing begins to fall apart, mostly through a series of casual and largely unthinking personal betrayals. Given that 'Brighton' and all it represents is providing the only meaning in his life - and being an idealist he desperately needs meaning - he begins to fall apart, he finds himself at sea without an anchor. The consequent nervous breakdown culminates in his near suicide, when he drives a scooter off a cliff and onto the rocks, jumping off at the last possible second.

The disillusionment of an idealist is a very modern tale. Rather than being a Mod, Jimmy could have been a communist, a Nazi, a hippie, a Hare Krishna - anyone who's looking to a set of radical beliefs to give meaning to his life. In this way the film entirely transcends its immediate subject matter. (Is it a bit too fanciful to think of its nineteenth-century novel analogue as being written by a Turgenev or even a Dostoevsky? Yes, probably.)

The journey is well-described: the arc of Jimmy's experience from enthusiastic true-believer to distraught nihilist is sensitively and compellingly drawn. It's psychologically convincing. It's well-acted by a superb young cast who would soon be numbered amongst Britain's better TV and film actors (Phil Daniels, Ray Winstone, Timothy Spall, Leslie Ash, Philip Davies, Kate Williams and Michael Elphick* - it also features an enjoyable gangster turn by John Bindon, who enjoyed one of Britain's stranger acting careers).

It's well-paced, the dialogue sounds authentic, it was shot in atmospheric and now historical locations in Brighton and London (check out the Goldhawk and Essex Roads in the late-'70s), and the soundtrack is superb, driving the film along on surges of emotion (the standalone concept album is actually one of the best of a justifiably maligned genre).

The film leaves you with an intriguing question: what happens to Jimmy? At the beginning of the film, we see him walking back from the cliffs having saved himself from the careering scooter. An optimistic view sees him as using his new-found maturity to set himself up in one of those 1960s careers where working class Londoners rapidly reach stratospheric heights, in advertising, the music industry, photography, film. The pessimistic view sees him in a mental hospital. And of course there are many plausible points in between. Perhaps he ended up just like his string-vest-wearing, stout-drinking, TV-watching Dad?

It's a great film. Better than American Graffiti, which it resembles in some respects, as it encompasses a lot more than the tooling around you do whilst waiting to come of age. But it's certainly not given the respect that that rather slight work receives. I suspect it suffers not just from being a cult film but also of not being part of a recognised body of work. We'd hardly pay the respect to the slight work that is American Graffiti without the subsequent success of George Lucas.

Quadrophenia was directed by Franc Roddam, who didn't go on to achieve the success of his contemporaries, Alan Parker and Ridley Scott. Perhaps if he had, Quadrophenia would be seen as the minor masterpiece it surely is.

* I exclude the execrable Sting from any praise. He's by far the worst thing about the film: he can't act, he can't dance, his hairstyle is cheap, he can't deliver dialogue, his idea of arrogant cool is to look as if he's sucking on a lemon whilst experiencing discomfort from piles.

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