Quadrophenia and The Boat That Rocked: Representations of Youth on Film

“Look, I don’t wanna be the same as everybody else. That’s why I’m a Mod, see? I mean, you gotta be somebody, ain’t ya, or you might as well jump in the sea and drown.” Jimmy, Quadrophenia (1979)

“You know, a few months ago, I made a terrible mistake. I realised something, and instead of crushing the thought the moment it came I… I let it hang on, and now I know it to be true. And I’m afraid it’s stuck in my head forever. These are the best days of our lives. It’s a terrible thing to know, but I know it.” The Count, The Boat That Rocked (2009)

When we think of the 1960s we invariably think of youth culture and ‘Swinging London’: Carnaby Street, Twiggy, the summer of love. The list of cultural signifiers of this era is almost endless. Quadrophenia and The Boat That Rocked, two films based in the 1960s, present us with two very different versions of youth culture in this decade. The way that these films have been received reveals a lot about attitudes to popular culture, and the issue of authenticity.

With the sort of melodramatic sentiment that can be found in all Richard Curtis films, ‘The Count’ reflects on his years as a pirate radio DJ. Very loosely based on the famous Radio Caroline, The Boat That Rocked is the story of Carl, a young man (very questionably) sent aboard the pirate radio ship ‘Radio Rock’ to learn life lessons. The film is nostalgia incarnate, and is unapologetic in its over-the-top representation of the ‘swinging sixties’; the hair, the clothes, the music, the counter-culture, a celebration of the anti-establishment sentiment that is so often invoked with regards to the 1960s, are all used by Curtis to portray the lives and mishaps of pirate radio DJs.[1] It is exaggerated, and it is far closer to fiction than fact in its portrayal of the life of a pirate radio DJ. But does this matter? I don’t think so. I can’t imagine that many people would watch The Boat That Rocked and think that Richard Curtis had accurately recreated what life was like in the 1960s. On its release in 2009 Empire magazine described the film as “a mix-tape of successes and failures, perhaps too light for its subject, but a silly, easy watch”.[2]



Quadrophenia poster, 1979


Quadrophenia, on the other hand, has retained its cult status as an ‘iconic ode to fallen youth’ since its release in 1979.[3] With its gritty realism and coming-of-age storyline, Quadrophenia has been well-received as a portrayal of life as a working-class teenager in post-war Britain. The film is based on the album of the same name by The Who. Set in 1964 and telling the story of Jimmy, a mod from London, Quadrophenia tackles issues of identity and group belonging, in one of the most iconic of all subcultures. Focusing on the famous seaside clashes at beaches between mods and rockers the film culminates with Jimmy realising that his mod idol is a bellboy at a seaside hotel. The release of Quadrophenia in 1979 came during the mod revival of the late 70s and it therefore became a part of youth culture, as well as being a portrayal of it.

Both films depict youth culture in the 1960s, but while one is dismissed as silly and easy, the other has earned its place as a cult classic. Why is this? Style is certainly one element. In this respect the two films are incomparable. One was created as a light-hearted comedy, the other as a gritty depiction of teenage issues. But I would argue that this is not the sole reason. Historians have come to value certain forms of youth culture above others, with subculture and the counterculture receiving the bulk of academic focus. ‘Mainstream’, or more popularised forms of youth culture, have often been dealt with as part of large sweeping histories of post-war Britain, as opposed to more ‘authentic’ forms of youth culture which have been the subject of rigorous analysis by historians and sociologists alike. Authenticity, the signifier of ‘proper’ youth culture and anti-commercialism, is central to discussions of youth culture and as a society we have come to value most those forms of culture that are seen to be ‘authentic’. Commercialisation is the enemy, the point at which culture becomes meaningless and monopolised.[4] (Spoiler alert: I’m not too keen on this whole commercialism is where youth culture becomes meaningless argument. I’ve written about it, and you can read that here.)

The Boat That Rocked focuses on a commercialised and generalised version of the 1960s, tapping unreservedly into the image of the swinging sixties and dolly birds that holds very little in common with reality. Despite this, I love it. It has a brilliant soundtrack, and is almost solely responsible for beginning my love-affair with 60s music and fashion. Quadrophenia, on the other hand, is based on the mod experience and remained close to the experiences of post-war British teenagers. Quadrophenia is, well, cool. There’s no denying it. It’s a gritty film about teenage angst, and who can’t relate to that? Aside from the obvious stylistic gulf, the key difference between these two films is the type of youth culture they represent. Authentic versus inauthentic. Cheese versus grit. These two films present two very different images of youth culture. Historical representations of youth culture comes in many forms, but perhaps we should reflect on why certain forms of youth culture are dismissed far more easily than others.

Sarah Kenny is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield researching youth culture, space, and identity. You can find her on Twitter at @SarahL_Kenny.

[1] This uncritical nostalgia is not without its problems. The Boat That Rocked has a very troubling portrayal of gender and sexuality. A fantastic summary of these issues can be found here: https://criticalmasculinities.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/no-rocking-the-boat-when-it-comes-to-cinematic-representation/

[2] http://www.empireonline.com/movies/boat-rocked/review/

[3] http://www.empireonline.com/movies/quadrophenia/review/

[4] Obviously the debate is much more complex than this. This article does a good job of summing it up: http://www.academia.edu/199058/Subculture_Theory_and_the_Fetishism_of_Style

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