This is a classic of British cinema, based on a ‘rock opera’ by The Who — which I’m guessing is just a fancy way of saying it was a concept double album — telling a story of Mods and Rockers in 1960s London (and, memorably, Brighton). This film adaptation though, to be clear, is not an opera, not even a musical, though music looms large in the protagonists’ lives. The source is also perhaps a hint to something of a studied disconnect to it: despite coming over as a gritty urban realist drama, there are constant hints towards the affectedness of it all. These characters could burst into song at any moment (one of the main actors is even Sting), and sometimes they do repeat refrains from their favourite tracks, but mostly it relies on a very clean, precise aesthetic and the heightened emotions conveyed well by all the actors, but especially Phil Daniels in the lead role of Jimmy.
In a generally unlikeable group of bored and angry kids, Jimmy is the most unlikeable — and yet compulsively watchable — of the lot, and the by the denouement the story has moved away from its gritty roots into something surreal, almost folkloric (like a lot of great 1970s British cinema), with a sequence of songs on the soundtrack finally eclipsing the spoken word, and a grandly staged finale that feels like an end and at the same time, leaves things open for Jimmy. However grim it seems to become for him as a character, the film has the careful poise of a musical (or maybe a Dennis Potter TV drama) in just slightly standing back. Perhaps I’d have fully embraced it if they had broken into song, but it’s still a fine evocation of an era and an introduction to a lot of 80s acting talent.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Franc Roddam; Writers Dave Humphries, Roddam, Martin Stellman and Pete Townshend (based on the album by The Who); Cinematographer Brian Tufano; Starring Phil Daniels, Leslie Ash, Philip Davis, Sting, Ray Winstone; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 16 December 2022.