Absolute Beginners at 30 – Was it really so bad?

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Bowie looks down from above

As Absolute Beginners celebrates its 30 year anniversary with a special edition DVD / Blu Ray release, Getintothis’ Del Pike looks back on this most despised of films and asks, was it really so bad?

The long hot summer of 1986 was the summer of Absolute Beginners. Right up until its release, and then attention wandered elsewhere, almost overnight.

This most ambitious of literary adaptions promised so much but became one of the most critically-hated musicals of all time, while still performing surprisingly well at the box office. What this suggests is that maybe the film had its fans after all. This writer went to see it twice despite the reviews and I don’t remember the cinemas being too empty. Let’s look back.

Director Julien Temple had found infamy from his film school final project, a satirical Sex Pistols documentary that traced the departure of Johnny Rotten, through auditions for his replacement to the deaths of Sid and Nancy. The project became The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (1980), one of history’s most startling rock biopics. A truly X-rated experience that showed the Pistols in all their foul mouthed glory, but from the heavily biased point of view of manager Malcolm McLaren. John Lydon hated the film so much that he demanded a retrial and with Julien Temple at the helm once more gave his and the other Pistols’ version of events 20 years later, in 2000’s The Filth and the Fury.

Temple was a punk and hanging out with The Pistols, filming them whilst part of their entourage helped make his name as a passionate and in-your-face filmmaker. His relative success with the Pistols’ movie led to a successful and lucrative career as a music video director, exploiting the runaway popularity of MTV and working alongside some of the biggest names in music, including David Bowie.

Realising the parallels between the punk movement and the birth of the teenager in the ’50s, Temple looked to writer Colin MacInnes for inspiration. MacInnes had served in the British Intelligence Corps in WWII and following his experiences wrote To the Victor the Spoils. He is best remembered however for his journalistic writing, essaying upon issues of imperialism, immigration, youths and the birth of the teen revolution in post-War London. As prolific as George Orwell in painting an accurate and illustrative picture of Britain in the mid-20th Century, MacInnes also wrote novels. His trio of stories based around the youth of the West End and Notting Hill captured the attention of hipsters and artists at the time of their release and continued to influence the likes of Paul Weller and Billy Bragg in later years. City of Spades, Absolute Beginners and Mr Love and Justice were produced between 1957 and 1960 and captured the zeitgeist of London like no other writer could.

Temple clearly found much inspiration in these books when he decided to turn Absolute Beginners into a film. Produced and distributed through Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell’s Palace Pictures – a company who had found fame as VHS distributors of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), and producers of The Company of Wolves (1984) – the partnership would go on to produce some of Britain’s finest ’80s and ’90s movies. For now they assisted Temple in turning his dream into a reality.

It was never an option that this film would not look like a music video; possibly its critical downfall. MacInnes purists longed for a faithful re-telling of the novel. Making the film as a full blown musical probably wasn’t going to win too many purists over either, but as different-thinking ’80s musicals go, was it really so bad?

Temple gathered musical contributors alongside his cast, which led to some musicians being cast themselves. The unknown actor Eddie O’Connell bagged the role of Colin, a streetwise photographer from Notting Hill let loose on the streets of Soho, the colourful characters his quarry. Patsy Kensit, known at that time for her band Eighth Wonder and Kewpie doll looks, was cast as Colin’s object of desire Suzette. Both O’Connell and Kensit looked the part, even if their acting wasn’t up to much.

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Patsy Kensit, preparing to “have it all”

The Kinks Ray Davies offers perhaps one of the high points of the film, in his role as Colin’s dad. Temple had met Davies whilst directing Kinks videos and invited him to contribute to the film. In the first sequence that was shot as a showcase for further funding, Davies plays the long-suffering head of a typical post war London household, cross-sectioned like a doll’s house so we can peer into each room and see what the family are up to. In arguably the best song in the film Quiet Life, we also see the inspired casting of Mandy Rice-Davies as Colin’s mum. Rice-Davies was the other half of the vivacious duo alongside Christine Keeler, who brought the conservative government to its knees in 1963‘s Profumo Affair. Palace Pictures would later produce a film profiling the affair; 1989’s Scandal.

The inclusion of Ray Davies, a genuine component of the youth scene that Absolute Beginners was essaying, lent the film credibility. As part of the original mod movement, Davies doesn’t disappoint. Temple also enlisted Paul Weller as a contributor, who at that time was helming The Style Council. His song With Everything to Lose from 1985’s Our Favourite Shop album was retitled Have You Ever Had It Blue? and given a fresh set of lyrics, replacing its politics with romance. It’s a great song, but loses a little of its charm when poorly mimed by O’Connell. Despite this, it went on to find success as a spin-off single.

Patsy Kensit’s Having It All is given a lush jazz arrangement. The title was originally given to Elvis Costello to turn into a song but the duties were taken over by members of Eighth Wonder (sounding curiously like Costello’s demo). In the context of the film, Suzette is leaving Colin for a life in the fashion industry, but the song cleverly reflects the youth attitude of the time, the nouveau riche making their own way in the world, predating by several years Harold MacMillansnever had it so good” era.

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Sade, Working Week, The Specials Jerry Dammers, Tenpole Tudor and Smiley Culture all turn up on the soundtrack, but undoubtedly the star attraction was David Bowie. Landing the role of Vendice Partners, a shrewd businessman with interests in decidedly dodgy property development, it was a strange performance to say the least, featuring an affected accent that never quite finds its place.

Bowie‘s performance is at irrelevant odds with the incredible title track he provided for the film. The Jam had already had a hit single using the title of MacInnes’s book; Bowie’s lush composition still reflects the content of the novel but offers a more cinematic approach. Love or hate the film, Absolute Beginners“Ba ba ba-oom” coda cannot fail to send a shiver down your spine. The song is the story of teenage Colin and Suzette’s relationship against the backdrop of a grown up world; a simple love song given a majestic treatment. Within the film lies another Bowie gem in the form of That’s Motivation, a full blown musical number in the style of an MGM set piece, Bowie and O’Connell prancing about an enormous stage that includes a giant typewriter and a spinning globe. Self-indulgent and ridiculous, but it provides the centrepiece of the film. Bowie’s self-taught tap-dancing is pretty impressive too.

The album release was an exercise in splitting the wheat from the chaff in terms of the punters who bought it. You could either buy the single disc album with a tacky photo of Colin and Suzette on the cover or a lavishly packaged double album with much more agreeable artwork and an expanded collection of songs. The album would also include the instrumental jazz scores of Gil Evans and a bonus Bowie track, Volare. The jazz soundtrack is excellent and whilst the film suffered at the hands of the critics, the music is hard to fault.

The approach taken by the movie on issues of racial tension is perhaps too light, one of the factors that turned critics against it so harshly.  John Waters and Spike Lee would get away with tackling race in a colourful and garish fashion with Hairspray (1988) and Do The Right Thing (1989) respectively, but Temple fails to hit this mark in his low-budget West Side Story approach. The villains of the piece are effective enough; Ed Tudor Pole had already appeared in Rock and Roll Swindle, having auditioned as Rotten’s replacement by singing Who Killed Bambi? in his own unique style. Here he plays the almost Victorian villain Ed the Ted, a bully boy for the fascist property developers keen to rid Notting Hill of its black community to build White City. Steven Berkoff turns in a fantastic performance as a Mosely figure (The Fanatic), at once hateful and ultimately manic. The problem lies in the cosy heroes, like the sax blowing Mr Cool and the tart with a heart, Big Jill, who somehow manage to dance at the fascists until they go away despite looking entirely unthreatening. The film ran over budget and it shows in the low-key riot scenes.

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It’s a shame that Absolute Beginners was so poorly received, as it was a true labour of love for all concerned. The studio sets are breath-taking, particularly the streets of Soho which are given an exhilarating Touch of Evil / Goodfellas-esque single take set piece at the start of the film. Ed Tudor Pole tells in the new release extras how even the cigarette stubs on the street matched the period. The outdoor Notting Hill (Napoli) set was the largest outdoor set since the days of Hitchcock and provides the film’s essence, perfectly capturing an idyllic West London summer.

Running over time and budget meant that Temple, Woolley and Powell were relieved of post-production duties, which led to much disruption and depression around the launch of the film. Temple still bitterly recalls pretending he was still involved during interviews, then carrying on the charade throughout the Royal Premiere in Leicester Square.

The accompanying hype was enormous. Even Channel 4’s flagship music show The Tube virtually devoted an entire show to the movie, dressing the set in a Soho style. The day after the premiere, the film was mauled by the press, prefixing every possible negative with “Absolute…”. Box office takings were good, but having re-appeared briefly on VHS the film soon sank into obscurity; Nik Powell claims that American audiences were much more receptive, but it fared worse there at the box office.

For a film ostensibly about the ’50s, Absolute Beginners‘ excess and often gauche delivery says just as much about the ’80s. It is difficult however to find a film with the same amount of energy and passion from this era. Bang in the middle of Thatcher’s term, themes of extreme right wing politics were even more redolent than contemporary critics imagined. Like so many other flops, over-hype was a contributing factor to the film’s downfall; but with Bowie on board there was little chance of avoiding it, and an old-fashioned musical in the middle of the ’80s was always going to be problematic.

To decide on Absolute Beginners‘ merits, the Blu Ray remaster has one of the most electrifying colour transfers you can imagine. To date, the book remains in need of a faithful no frills adaption, and the film version stands as either a disaster, an above average piece of entertainment or a cult classic, depending on your perspective.

 

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