Growing up is hard. Especially with no direction, no prospects, nothing to tell you, “hey kid, it’s going to be okay.” Quadrophenia is about that type of situation; aimless youth with nothing to do but ride motor scooters, wear flash suits, take drugs, and go to parties, just to escape the drudgery of the working class life that they’ve been sentenced to. Life becomes all about whose bike is the nicest, whose girl is the best looking, whose suit is the slimmest. And is it any wonder that in just such situations, people end up going too far and getting hurt?
Based on the Pete Townshend-written rock opera by the Who of the same title, Quadrophenia tells the story of Jimmy Cooper, a London Mod in the mid ’60s. Youths of the area seems split between two major proto-gangs, Mods (who wear slim suits, big green jackets, and ride motor scooters) and Rockers (black leather jackets, greased up hair, and motorcycles.) Mods hate Rockers. Rockers hate Mods. (It is an entirely arbitrary distinction, but then again, aren’t most?) Jimmy spends his days working as a postal clerk in an advertising firm and arguing with his parents, and his nights tooling around with his Mod friends, causing trouble, popping pills, and generally wasting time. The majority of the film is about his slow disillusionment with the life he has, and what it all means. Ultimately, after a series of violent encounters and personal revelations, it culminates in him seeing his idol, Ace Face (played by Sting[!]) working as a bellhop in a Brighton hotel. Disillusioned even further, Jimmy steals Ace’s scooter and crashes it over a cliff. His ultimate fate is left unsaid; is he alive or dead?
That ambiguity is the best part of a largely plotless film. Not to say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. I’ve always been drawn to the Mod fashion & culture from that time, so it’s definitely a movie I enjoyed watching. But it IS very aimless and meandering, which I’d largely place at the feet of the source material. The Who album Quadrophenia is, much like Tommy, less concerned with having a coherent plot than in communicating a feeling through story sketches. If anything, Tommy had a more coherent storyline than Quadrophenia. Pete Townshend has said the title references to the 4 personalities of Jimmy Cooper, with different songs throughout the album representing the different sides of him (each one ostensibly standing for a member of the Who as well.) None of this is really present in the film, as you don’t get much of a view on Jimmy’s inner thoughts, so it all just seems like typical teenage aimlessness.
That said, the film does represent that feeling well. You get a true idea of the dead end many of these kids went faced, caught between the previous generation and the uncertain future. Many saw no choice but to take drugs, drink, and throw their lives away. Whether that’s a valid choice or not, it’s one they made. The end I think represents Jimmy escaping the life he had been all too eager to throw himself into. I don’t believe he dies; I think he starts to live. In a literal or metaphorical sense, it’s a choice that we all make at some point.