It's unfortunate that a movie as stunning as the new British import "Quadrophenia" should have to overcome a pretentious, mystifying title.
Of course, most of the appropriate titles for this brilliantly recreated impression of a sordid adolescent existence -- a searing character profile of a restless, ignorant, violence-prone working-class boy caught up in the Mod-Rocker youth gang conflicts of the early '60s -- have long since been spoken for. One thinks of "The Lower Depths," "Catch Us If You Can," "Mean Streets" or "Saturday Night Fever."
Evidently, the title is an affectation dreamed up by the film's backers, the British rock group The Who, who fancied the idea of a protagonist reflecting the personalities of the four band members.
The title, combined with the fact that the movie was produced by The Who, may create the misapprehension that "Quad" is a rock concern film, an experience many of us would go out of our way to avoid. It is not, although the group supplies some of the musical background. In fact, the film depicts such a raw, brutish slice of subcultural life -- and concentrates on such an unsentimetalized little creep of a protagonist -- that people may be tempted to avoid it on nervous or moral grounds.
Like "Going Places" or "Taxi Driver," it seems an authentic reflection of contemporary urban depravity and unrest, but that reflection may not seem very edifying even if you acknowledge its artistic conviction and integrity.
Still, "Quad . . . " is an eye-opener and spellbinder. It introduces two young filmmakers with phenomenal expressive command of the medium in director and co-writer Franc Roddam and cinematographer Brian Tufano. "Quad . . . " joins "The Black Stallion" and "The Warriors" as one of the year's most impressive pictorial and kinesthetic experiences.
From the opening image, which discloses the silhouetted figure of Phil Daniels as the young protagonist Jim Cooper, isolated against a burnished Brighton seascape, one is led to expect a movie with considerable visual flair and evocative power. Roddam and Tufano sustain this promising first impression, even to the extent of inventing a whole series of images that recall and reinforce the idea of Jim's emotional and social isolation as the story surges along.
It depicts the alternately stifling and hedonistic influences on Jim's grim, circumscribed life as the Mod-and-Rocker phenomenon heats to a boil in 1964. There is nothing at all attractive about this scrawny, resentful boy, and one of the most impressive things about Phil Daniels' performance is his ability to evoke a fierce, hard-earned pathos out of the plight of a fundamentally mean, oblivious, juvenile.
Jim comes by his obilviousness easily. His disapproving, out-of-it parents (embodied with nerve-wracking authenticity by Kate Williams and Michael Elphick) could never have inspired much hope or confidence, and Jim is obviously a nasty little disappointment to them.
Systematically ignored or demeaned at home and at his detested job -- mail boy in an advertising agency -- he seeks excitement and release in the forms of pop gratification immediately available and appealing to him: pills, rock music, teenage dancehalls, promiscuous sex, random criminality.
Jim also prizes his identity with the foppish-but-tough Mods, who travel around on elaborately adorned mopeds, dress in glossy, narrow-lapeled suits and prefer butch hairdos -- all of which differentiate them superficially from the Rockers, kids of the same class who prefer cycles, leather and wavy mops.
Jim's dead-end delinquency culminates in a holiday riot between Mods and Rockers on the streets of Brighton. It's the high point of Jim's life, in part because he manages to slip away in the confusion for some fast sex with the pert Mod doll, Steph (Leslie Ash, a scintillating little femme fatale), whom he's always fancied.
Excited by the mayhem, Steph couldn't wait either. But in the after-math of this erotically stimulating weekend, Jim's fragile ego-props are permanently demolished. The promiscuous nature that made Steph so available at one lucky moment takes her away again. Kim's ever-percolating fury at his own social insignificance is intensified by a disillusioning discovery: The most defiant of the Mods on Riot Day turns out to be as much of an everyday flunky as errand-boy Jim himself.
Truly visualized dramatic movies are rare enough to make you sit up and take notice when they flash across the screen. "Quad . . . " imposes a riveting vision and turbulent rhythm from the outset. Roddam's stylistic assurance carries you along even when the unfamiliar socialogical background of the Mod-Rocker hostility remains hazy and the thick dialects render the profane, colloquial dialogue sporadically indecipherable.
The inarticulate rage and hunger that seem to consume Jim Cooper -- and that are constantly fed by the pop music and commercialized culture he responds to -- are clearly, starkly expressed in action, utterance and image, especially the uncomely but eloquent configuration of Phil Daniels' face.
Roddam's name is probably new to most American moviegoers, and "Quad . . . " is his first theatrical feature. Nevertheless, 20th Century-Fox, which was astute enough to sign Ridley Scott for "Alien" after "The Duellists," has already picked up on Roddam, who forged a considerable reputation in British shorts, commercials and television documentaries over the past decade. At 32 he appears to be in complete command of formidable directing skills.
Among other sensational gifts, Roddam is exceptional at staging and sustaining scenes of teeming social activity. In a congested dancehall or apartment, in the spacious settings of a restaurant or city street, he creates a busy and sometimes explosive illusion of ongoing life without losing sight of his main characters or obscuring intimate dramatic details.
It's a versatile, vivid naturalistic touch, made even more pungent by a sardonic streak of humor. Tufone's boldly expressionistic lighting and fluid camera movement are indispensable expressive tools for depicting such a heightened, flamboyant vision of grubby reality. Roddam and Tufone seem to have come out of nowhere, but they arrive in smashing cinematic style.