In Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Jim Stark’s issues are caused by his frustration with the dynamic between his ineffectual father and his domineering mother; a reflection of the paternalistic Father-Knows-Best culture of the fifties and sixties. In The Breakfast Club (1985), John Bender has an equally fitful reaction to the behavior of his own father, an abusive alcoholic. Quadrophenia (1979) is a timeless story because more than anything, its protagonist’s problems are driven by a search for identity.
Of Quadrophenia, Pete Townshend himself said, “The music is the best music that I’ve ever written, I think and it’s the best album that I will ever write.” I think Townshend is absolutely right. It’s got a more coherent story and more relevant subject material than Tommy (1969), and the complexity of the music in the album, while often a handicap when dealing with large audiences, is what takes it into masterpiece territory. Quadrophenia is one of the best albums ever produced, and the film version is one of the most memorable portrayals of teen angst that’s ever been captured.
The Film: Quadrophenia
The Song: “I’ve Had Enough”
The Artist: The Who
Quadrophenia is centered around a teenager named Jimmy Cooper (played by Phil Daniels) whose existence disintegrates before our eyes as the film progresses. The lad has defined himself as a modernist or “Mod”, and enthusiastically engages in the activities that define his tribe – popping amphetamines (known as “blues), dressing in wide-lapeled suits or wartime coats, driving a scooter decked out with dozens of mirrors, and picking street-fights with his easily defined enemy, the leather-clad “rockers.”
Jimmy is suffering from schizophrenia, and the four facets of Jimmy’s personality are meant to represent the four members of The Who, as explained in a short story that accompanies the liner notes of the album. Roger Daltrey, the singer, is a “tough guy, a helpless dancer.” John Entwistle, whose unique talent at the bass guitar is showcased on “The Real Me,” is the romantic. Pete Townshend, the guitarist and primary architect of both the music and lyrics of most of The Who’s music, is “a beggar and a hypocrite.” And the maniacal drummer Keith Moon is a “bloody lunatic,” particularly when he gets into his gin.
As the film progresses, incidents begin to occur that disrupt Jimmy’s sense of tribalism and unsettle him greatly. Discovering his childhood friend Kevin has become a rocker is confusing. Losing his dreamgirl to one of his mates and his subsequent ejection from the pack is heartbreaking. Jimmy’s final revelation that his hero, the arrogant and blithely dismissive “Ace Face” (played by Sting) works as a bootlicking bellboy at a fancy hotel, is the final blow in Jimmy’s downward spiral that ends with him racing on a stolen scooter towards the edge of the white-faced cliffs of Dover.
Phil Daniels had done little of note prior to Quadrophenia. Sadly, he has done little of note since. In fact, of the original cast, only Sting has become a recognizable name, and that primarily due to his role as the lead singer for the Police. Even the director, Franc Roddam, has done nothing that received mainstream recognition following his film rendition of the Who’s masterfully wrought 1973 album.
Why it Works: As much as I love this song, it always felt like it was out of place on the album. Claiming “I’ve had enough” implies that some sort of endpoint is at hand. On the album version of Quadrophenia, all that this song signified was the end of Side 2 of Record 1. At the end of the story is where it belongs. The shots of a distraught Jimmy on a scooter he stole from his fallen idol Ace Face provide a perfect counterpoint to the film’s opening sequence. When we’re introduced to Jimmy at the beginning of the film, he is riding through the streets of London on his own scooter, content and secure in his identity. During his final ride along the cliffs of Dover, Jimmy’s distraught expression and anguished cry of “ME!” show that the identity he had developed for himself has been shattered, and he no longer has any conception of who he actually is, or who he wants to become.
The soaring shots of the chalk-white cliffs of Dover are beautiful, and it’s impossible to ignore the fact that someone (Jimmy, or a stuntman who hopefully received adequate compensation) is driving a scooter on rough turf within ten feet of the edge of a two-hundred foot cliff while shadowed closely by a helicopter. The final shot of the scooter launching off the cliff into the air provides an interesting point of ambiguity – did Jimmy tumble off the scooter at the last moment? Or does the absence of an actual person falling to the rocks symbolize that Jimmy as an individual has already ceased to exist, and that the remainder of his flesh that falls to the rocks is nothing more than machinery, a soulless collection of pipes and wires?
What Goes Wrong: There are a few cutaways that really interrupt the fantastic camera work. At the midpoint of the clip, the dazzling helicopter shot of the cliff is interrupted by a cut back to another bird’s eye shot of Jimmy. And as the scooter enters its final slow-motion descent, a few long-range shots of the cliff are spliced in, presumably to make the fall look longer than it actually was.
Other Stuff: Quadrophenia was one of the first albums to be released in quadraphonic sound. The format ultimately failed, primarily due to a preponderance of technical problems. While surround-sound replaced quadraphonic sound and is a very popular format for video these days, it is rarely used with pure audio recordings because, as my friend Jonathan once explained, “A person only has two ears.”