Absolute Beginners (1986) directed by Julien Temple
What’s it about?
In this musical set in London during the 1950s, young photographer Colin (Eddie O'Connell) is in love with fashion assistant Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit). They regularly meet for nights out in Soho - the throbbing, neon-lit heart of London’s youth scene. The trouble is that Colin comes from the slums and falls short of impressing the aspiring Suzette, who suddenly gets thrown into the limelight after a happy accident at a fashion show put on by her employer Henley (James Fox). Soon she waves goodbye to catch her big break and promptly gets hitched up with her older but much wealthier boss.
Colin manages to break out of the grief caused by the loss of his girl and hits upon a way to win her back - by following her up the ladder. He lands his own big break working as a photographer for pop mogul Harry Charms (Lionel Blair).
Meanwhile, back in Colin’s old neighbourhood the multiethnic residents are being turfed out by some local heavies who are being paid by a wealthy company that wants to redevelop the area. To make matters worse, a racial hate group is stirring up tensions.
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Why is it significant?
In the early 1980s Goldcrest Films was the largest player in the British film industry. Not only did it have a number of modestly budgeted critical and commercial successes (such as Chariots of Fire, Local Hero and even the John Carpenter cult favourite Escape from New York - the latter albeit filmed in the US) but also a couple of big budget multiple award winners in Gandhi and The Killing Fields. Such was its success that it tried to position itself as a British rival to Hollywood. Unfortunately its ambitions quickly turned sour on the back of three costly flops: Revolution, Absolute Beginners and, to a lesser extent, The Mission.
We look at the second of the three here. It was helmed by director Julien Temple who was well known for his contemporary music videos. It reportedly made just £1.8 million on the back of a £8.4 million budget and wasn’t well-received by most critics at the time. It has, however, subsequently won a cult following. The fact that the iconic David Bowie - who pops up both in the film and on the soundtrack - sadly passed away in 2016 has also granted it a renewed attention.
How does it hold up?
Absolute Beginners is a strange beast - a fascinating but seriously flawed effort. It’s a colourful retro musical with a wildly stylised and shamelessly anachronistic view of its time period coupled with a delve into some surprisingly dark subject matter. One thing that can be said about the film is that it is a visual and aural feast. Every scene is an eye-burning riot of colour and movement as Julien Temple’s visual invention combines with the fanciful production design by John Beard. Colin’s pad is filled with clothes cupboards disguised as refrigerators and monochrome photos of Suzette that come to life to complement his dress sense. Nighttime Soho is a riot of colourful storefronts, ubiquitous neon and brightly dressed beatniks. Colin’s parent’s home is shot just like an open dollhouse with a musical number unfolding across several rooms on screen concurrently.
The soundtrack by the likes of David Bowie, Ray Davies (of The Kinks fame), Eighth Wonder (Patsy Kensit’s band of this period), Style Council and Sade might not be of the film’s period, but certainly makes for an eclectic and engaging listen.
Absolutely jarring shifts in tone
The film’s main issues come from the somewhat rambling structure and awkward tonal shifts. The first half seems to be going for breezy escapism with lots of bright eye-candy. However later on it shifts into a genuinely dark feel, culminating in a violent race riot (shades of the Notting Hill riots) instigated by a National Front-style group headed by Steven Berkoff as a sinister Oswald Moseley inspired figure. Further behind them is a sinister property company named White Developments Ltd (subtle huh) who have a vested interest in driving out the predominantly black families in the area. While the early moments do occasionally hint at the darker direction the film eventually takes it still feels very much like a cinematic identity crisis.
The film’s various subplots and motley cameos also feel somewhat awkward at times. While Bowie brings one of the film’s best musical numbers, the scenes where he is called on to perform straight acting are embarrassing, with what seems to be an attempt to pull off what can best be described as a Connery-era Bond impersonation from hell. Lionel Blair camps it up as an ever-dancing pop Svengali with an implied unhealthy fondness for adolescent boys. His role is just creepy without ever really adding much. What about Mandy Rice-Davies (of the Profumo affair fame) in another name drop as Colin’s mother who makes a cuckold of dad Ray Davies? Or Alan Freeman playing… well… pretty much himself by another name, complete with his trademark “pop pickers” catchphrase? It’s like a bunch of ideas were scribbled down and thrown in for the hell of it.
Still, despite its issues Absolute Beginners is charming in its own way. It’s certainly not boring, while star Eddie O'Connell has enough charisma to keep the viewer following his story through the expensive sets and elaborate dance numbers.
Runtime: 108 mins
Dir: Julien Temple
Script: Richard Burridge, Christopher Wicking, Don Macpherson, Terry Johnson, from a novel by Colin MacInnes
Starring: Eddie O'Connell, Patsy Kensit, David Bowie, James Fox, Ray Davies, Mandy Rice-Davies, Tony Hippolyte, Lionel Blair, Steven Berkoff, Edward Tudor-Pole, Bruce Payne, Alan Freeman