From Hot Wax to the Silver Screen: Quadrophenia (1979)


To view Quadrophenia click here.

Since film got sound, filmmakers have been making musicals. And much of the time the inspiration was the music itself. That is to say, while many musicals are composed originally, like Oklahoma (1955), others, like An American in Paris (1951), are adapted from music already in existence, music that inspired the filmmakers to, essentially, turn songs into plots. After the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, and its late 1960s/early 1970s predilection for concept albums, rock operas and good old fashioned wretched excess, there was new fertile ground from which filmmakers could excavate a storyline. Some were strict adaptations, some were songs as story and some were loose inspirations. In the 1970s, several movies were made with rock songs as their basis with decidedly mixed results, until finally, they seemed to have given up on the singing part altogether.

How mixed were those results? Well, let’s just say to view Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975) alongside Michael Schultz’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) is to behold the apex of the form alongside the nadir in one easy, though painful, double feature. So the results ran the gamut in quality from “Hey, this is pretty good,” to “Oh my God, please make it stop now!” And while Sgt. Pepper is truly abysmal, Tommy is by no means perfect. It feels far more Ken Russell than The Who, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as a direct translation, the story tends to get lost in the excess of the period. Still, its director Ken Russell took the basic template of the Tommy album and translated it to the screen and it remains one of my favorite rock adaptations. Maybe that’s because I’m a fan of both The Who and Russell so it works for me.

Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) went in the opposite direction. Instead of forming a story from the songs, aka Sgt. Pepper, or going for a stricter adaptation, aka Tommy, director Alan Parker took Roger Waters’s music (with some assists by David Gilmour) and translated it into a kind of extensive musical abstraction, in which the rough story of the album becomes a backdrop to the images on the screen, images that tell a similar story but in a much more phantasmagorical way.  I was a fan of the album more than the movie but the animation sequences did impress the hell out of me. I still think it is some of the best, and most underappreciated, animation out there.

Which brings us to the best rock opera ever turned into a standard drama on film, Quadrophenia(1979). Yes, for me, Quadrophenia is Pete Townsend’s best work and after the musical movie extravaganza of Tommy, I was expecting something similar for Quadrophenia the movie. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Whatever it was, my wish was not granted. Quadrophenia, the movie, takes an entire book of music, made to be sung, and turns it into a non-musical movie, separating the two elements of story and song as if it made no difference at all. But it does.

Filmmakers have turned popular songs into non-musical movies for years, from Ode to Billy Joe (1976) to The Indian Runner (1991, based on “Highway Patrolman”), but since those were only single songs, its understandable that the directors fleshed out the story and didn’t focus on the music. When you’ve got a full rock opera at your disposal and still decide it’s best to just film the story and drop the singing, that’s another matter entirely.

The fact is, I think Quadrophenia is a good film and taking it for what it is, I would say it succeeds. Phil Daniels does well in the lead, though the originally cast John Lydon (aka, Johnny Rotten) would have been fun to see, and first time director Franc Roddem displays the instincts of a veteran. But as an adaptation, it’s pretty lacking. The story itself isn’t powerful enough to sustain itself without song. Tommy doesn’t succeed because we’re all so captivated by Tommy’s pinball skills, it succeeds because of the music built around it telling the story. And without the music, Jimmy the Mod (Daniels) of Quadrophenia needs to be a hell of a lot more interesting than he actually is, which is not much.


Quadrophenia tells the story of a dispossessed, angst-ridden British youth in 1965, Jimmy, who does little to nothing and always finds time to complain. Its the kind of angry young man movies that might have been made in the 1960s but with better writing, directing and acting from people like John Osborne, Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell. Made as a musical, it could have achieved that kind of stature. Making it without didn’t doom it, but it did remove what could have made it unique instead of just another angst-ridden teenage drama.

Of course, by 1979, no one from The Who was interested in appearing in it, and even if they were, Roger Daltry was too old to play Jimmy (hell, he was in his early 30′s when he played Tommy). On top of that, drummer Keith Moon died in 1978 and the band seemed a shadow of its former self. When the film was released, it received good reviews but almost no one talked about the music. Why would they? It’s nothing more than background accompaniment.

Turning rock music into movie plots is a crap shoot. The previously mentioned Sgt. Pepper had an abundance of good music to work with and somehow managed to stumble every step of the way. Quadrophenia had great music to work with as well but made its biggest misstep by not putting that music at the center of the story. It’s a rock opera that became a kitchen sink drama. Not a bad thing, but it could have been a whole lot better.

Greg Ferrara

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7 Responses From Hot Wax to the Silver Screen: Quadrophenia (1979)
Posted By Renee Leask : October 13, 2017 6:44 pm

Still, the movie made me a Who fan and, particularly, a Quadrophenia fan. So there’s that.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 13, 2017 7:11 pm

And as I love the album itself, that’s enough for me.

Posted By Christine in GA : October 13, 2017 7:28 pm

I never saw the movie version and, frankly, now I don’t care to. QUADROPHENIA is my favorite Who album and the Who are one of my very favorite rock bands. When I listen to the music, my imagination creates a movie in my head so I don’t even need a film version, especially one that doesn’t even feature the wonderful songs. Like Greg said, “That’s enough for me.”

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 14, 2017 11:13 pm

Christine, it has the songs on the soundtrack and some vintage footage of The Who but, yeah, it’s not really a Who film in any way. But so glad to see another Who fan who’s favorite Who album is Quadrophenia. Who’s Next runs a close second for me.

Posted By Christine in GA : October 15, 2017 4:09 pm

Greg, Thanks for the reply. WHO’S NEXT is my second favorite Who album, too, followed by LIVE AT LEEDS.

Posted By swac44 : October 16, 2017 9:21 am

Saw it on the big screen recently, and it was still exciting for me to see a faithful recreation of the period and the mod scene, even though I agree with you on Jimmy’s drawbacks as a lead character. But keep in mind, this is the only film that ever inspired me to buy a vehicle (a nifty 1979 Vespa PX-200e with lots of chrome and a sparkly black paint job) and the sight of all those Vespa and Lambretta scooters riding together still gives me a thrill. And The Real Me and Love Reign O’er Me are still powerful tunes, and I think they get their due in the way they’re used in the film, which borrows a lot from the photo booklet that was included with original pressings of the album in the 1970s.

Posted By SeeingI : January 16, 2018 1:10 pm

The movie works for me, and most of the music IS there, just as an accompaniment to the action, not sung on-screen.

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