Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Once Over Twice: Absolute Beginners

(1986) Directed by Julien Temple; Written by Richard Burridge, Christopher Wicking and Don MacPherson; Based on the novel by Colin MacInnes; Starring: Patsy Kensit, Eddie O’Connell, David Bowie, James Fox, Ray Davies, Eve Ferret and Sade; Available on Blu-ray (region B) and DVD (Out of Print)

Rating: ****

“The time I grew up was an incredible time in London, in terms of music… each week in the mid-60s you had these great bands putting out a new single each week, but another band would seem to top that, and as a kid in London (school kid) you felt they were talking directly to you, shaping ways to see the world, which your school and your parents weren’t necessarily doing… so I was trying to make a film that captured some of that energy and some of that universality…” – Julien Temple (from the documentary Absolute Ambition)

Julien Temple’s vibrant musical Absolute Beginners seemed to have so much going for it that it couldn’t possibly lose. Boasting a terrific cast, spirited performances, superb cinematography, and a diverse assortment of songs, it should have been a big hit. It’s too bad no one wanted to see a musical about the late-50s London teen scene in 1986. Absolute Beginners performed well at the box office in England, but vanished quickly in the U.S. (despite reviews that were more favorable than its country of origin). Over the years, the film faded into undeserved obscurity, but it’s time to re-examine its considerable charms.

Julien Temple was the ideal director to bring the frenzied story, based on a novel by Colin MacInnes, to life. He was no stranger to music, as the veteran director of multiple music videos, as well as the notorious Sex Pistols documentary The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. Temple took these rock and roll sensibilities, splicing them with DNA borrowed from classic Hollywood musicals to make a unique mixture.

Colin* (Eddie O’Connell) is a teen from the wrong side of the tracks, who spends his days in his dilapidated neighborhood and nights photographing the colorful London nightlife. His key ambition is to make a name for himself, to keep the affections of his ambitious, fickle girlfriend Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit). The only problem is Suzette has other plans. She begins to leave Colin behind, as she climbs the ladder in the fashion world. Colin’s dreams are crushed when Suzette’s marries her middle-aged boss, but he plans to win her back.

* Fun fact: Temple considered Tim Roth for the role of Colin, but Roth wasn’t considered “handsome enough” by the producers. Although O’Connell did a fine job, Roth would have been an inspired casting choice, and almost certainly would have taken the role in a different direction.

David Bowie lights up the screen with his presence as slick ad man Vendice Partners. He schemes with fashion mogul Henley of Mayfair (James Fox) to re-shape Colin’s crumbling Notting Hill neighborhood to pave the way for a gleaming new (and exclusively white) future. It’s interesting to note that David Bowie starred in two very different musicals in 1986, but in both he played a Mephistophelean character, who presents the protagonist with a Faustian bargain. Jareth in Labyrinth and Vendice Partners share common traits: seductive and charismatic, but with a dark side brewing just beneath the surface. In the case of Partners, he promises Colin fame and wealth, but he’ll stop at nothing to drive the Notting Hill residents out at any cost.

A musical stands or falls by its songs, which are intended to drive the story. In the case of Absolute Beginners, each song builds on the next to propel the mood and tone. With “Having It All,” Colin is taunted by his girlfriend’s sultry serenade, as he watches his relationship slip through his fingers. But if the previous song was about a dying relationship, then “Killer Blow,” sung by Sade, represents its death. One of my favorite songs, “Selling Out,” is about finding a way to win back Suzette, by hook or crook. “That’s Motivation” by David Bowie (he also wrote the movie’s title song) is an ode to the superficial joys of materialism. Colin’s father Arthur, played by Ray Davies of The Kinks sings “Quiet Life,” a tribute to domestic ennui. He turns a blind eye to everything falling apart in his dysfunctional household (“No ambition to rock the boat, when I can simply stay afloat.”).

A pervasive sense of energy runs throughout the film. Action, color and music meld together to make the opening scene come alive. A Steadicam tracking shot immerses us in Colin’s world, as we wind through the stylized, neon-drenched streets of London’s red-light district, circa 1958. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton employed tricks, such as colored gels, to make the colors pop. The overall effect mimics the look of Technicolor musicals, which served as a template for Temple. The set pieces are also impressive. In one of the signature scenes, Bowie tap dances* on an enormous typewriter. In the “Quiet Life” number, we’re treated to a cutaway of a run-down apartment building, so we can view the simultaneous goings-on of the tenants. The funky London jazz club “Chez Nobody” takes on its own life, with its skeleton motif.  

* Another Fun Fact: According to Temple, Bowie didn’t have previous tap dancing experience, but when he learned about the requirements of his part, he returned for filming two weeks later, ready to dance.

Absolute Beginners packs quite a few serious themes in a jaunty package. One of the more prevalent themes is teenagers as a marketing device. The younger generation was asserting itself in unprecedented ways, reflecting the post-war boom. As a result, some enterprising entrepreneurs viewed the teen as a marketable commodity, with a growing younger demographic to cater to. It’s a cynical pursuit, however, favoring money over ideals, the things we want take precedence over the things we need. The film also reminds us the phenomenon of gentrification isn’t a new thing. The efforts of unscrupulous businessmen to whitewash Colin’s neighborhood seem all too relevant today. The anti-immigrant, anti-ethnic rhetoric spouted by the hired thugs demonstrates our baser natures where money is concerned.

The film loses some steam in the final third, when it runs out of songs and focuses on the drama of the street riots, but it’s only a minor quibble. Some might also take issue with the diverse group of songs, which might not accurately represent the music from the era, but Temple was never going for stark realism. It’s an impressionistic interpretation, which occupies its own reality. Absolute Beginners is a maddening example of a movie that should have been big, yet somehow wasn’t. Maybe it was before its time, or after, but thanks to home video we can always give it a second chance. The Region B Blu-ray brings the movie a restored vitality. No matter which way you choose to see it, it’s an infectious blend of kitsch and social relevance, wrapped up in a pseudo-technicolor package, and it merits serious re-evaluation.


  1. Somehow Absolute Beginners slipped right by me, Barry, but thankfully your passionate review did not!

    I will have to keep an eye out for this one, if only to see David Bowie tap dancing on an enormous typewriter!

    1. Thanks, John! It's well worth seeking out. And the typewriter scene is truly iconic!