When Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners was released in 1986 it was met with general indifference and some critical dismissals. While the film may have some problems, today its reputation seems to be clouded by the misconception that it single-handedly ruined the prestigious British film studio Goldcrest and was universally panned. Neither of these assumptions is true and from a distance of some 25 years it’s probably much easier for modern audiences to appreciate Temple’s creative attempt to breathe new life into the movie musical. His unusual amalgam of different musical eras and pop culture references was ahead of its time but today it can be enjoyed as an interesting predecessor to Baz Luhrmann’s films including Romeo + Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge! (2001) and The Great Gatsby (2013).
Absolute Beginners tells the story of Colin (Eddie O’Connell), a young photographer who’s infatuated with a promising fashion designer sporting the quirky name of Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit). It’s 1958 in London during a long hot summer when “The Soho nights were cool in the heat, with light and music in the streets.” The couple’s budding romance begins to fall apart when Suzette’s fashion career takes off and she eventually marries a sexually ambiguous and much older designer (James Fox) in a selfish attempt to further her ambitions. The heartbroken Colin gets his revenge by becoming a successful photographer of youth culture and stealing some of Suzette’s limelight but his efforts to win back the woman he loves are complicated by the growing racial tensions in the city. After riots erupt across London, Colin and Suzette finally come together to support their integrated neighborhood threatened by race baiting property developers. The ensuing drama is punctuated by colorful song-and-dance numbers and the film ends in a musical climax reminiscent of West Side Story (1961) that takes place under an umbrella of exploding firework.
As the director of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1979) and many trendsetting videos for the burgeoning music television market, Julien Temple had established himself as a taste maker and a purveyor of popular culture. The British film industry assumed he could do no wrong and Goldcrest Films, which had been the driving force behind Oscar winning movies such as Chariots of Fire (1981), Gandhi (1982) and The Killing Fields (1984), agreed to finance Temple’s first full-length feature film. At the time the studio was facing financial disaster following the unprecedented critical and box office failure of Revolution (1985) and Goldcrest desperately needed a major hit if they were going to survive. They began to oversell Absolute Beginners to the British press and it was widely hyped as “The future of British cinema.” As expectations increased, Temple’s new musical began to run into production problems. The elaborate sets designed to emulate London in the late ‘50s were costly and heavy rains stalled filming. The bad weather also caused cast and crew members to become ill and further delays were inevitable after an electrical fire destroyed one of the expensive sound stages. Frustrated producers publicly shared their concerns with journalists and rumors began to circulate that Absolute Beginners was so bad that it would never get released. Before the film saw the light of day publications like Time Out were suggesting “Ten reasons why nobody should bother going to see Absolute Beginners.” It was assumed that Temple was out of his league and the movie was doomed to fail so the director was forced off the picture before he was allowed to edit it. When the film did finally see the light of day the critical consensus was more or less indifferent but it failed to find a supportive audience and Goldcrest Films did eventually close its doors but has since relaunched.
Following the film’s release in Britain the Daily Mail proclaimed that Absolute Beginners was “a riot of color and action” while critics at Time Out added, “All that noise, all that energy, so little governing thought.” In the United States, Caryn James writing for The New York Times said “For all its unevenness, Absolute Beginners is high pop culture” and Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “A mixed success, but an exhilarating try.”
Absolute Beginners was based on Colin MacInnes’ beloved British cult novel, which described the impact of popular culture on London’s youth in 1958 and shed some much needed light on underlying racial conflicts that eventually led to the notorious Notting Hill race riots. The film has often been criticized for taking too many liberties with its source material and turning MacInnes’ gritty 56-year-old novel into a polished pop music extravaganza with a 1980s sensibility. But Julien Temple never concealed his intentions when adapting the material and in 1986 the director told Spin Magazine that he wanted to make, “A definitive statement on this phenomenon of youth culture.” The film’s ‘80s inspired neon color palette, bulky hair styles and modern fashion sense were an obvious attempt to attract the same youthful crowd that was watching the director’s videos on MTV but his auteur approach didn’t win him many fans. In the director’s attempt to appeal to such a large audience his film lacked focus, which only added to its jumbled narrative. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Is it set in the ‘50s or the ‘80s? Temple’s film can’t seem to make up its mind. Despite its schizophrenic nature, Absolute Beginners has the distinction of being the first film to focus on the historic Notting Hill race riots of 1958 and use them as a dramatic backdrop. This was particularly daring at the time because the U.K. had continued to have race related problems for decades that were often overlooked by politicians and popular media. America was dealing with similar problems of its own that were being widely disregarded and these growing racial tensions would eventually erupt leading to events like the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The film’s serious side may have been easy to overlook at the time due to general ignorance about what it was addressing and its politics were undoubtedly overshadowed by the lighthearted musical numbers that seem at odds with the somber script. But today Temple’s highly stylized modern musical plays like a glossy attempt to address the complicated race problems that were quietly boiling under the slick veneer of ‘80s pop culture.
The film works best when it doesn’t run from its music video origins that were reinforced by the decision to include pop icons such as David Bowie in the role of an unscrupulous advertising executive and The Kink’s Ray Davies who portrays Colin’s apathetic father. Temple hoped Absolute Beginners would resurrect interest in the classic musicals he had grown up admiring and the film’s choreography (by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s David Toguri) emphasizes its debt to old Hollywood. Bowie and Davis appear in two of the film’s most successful numbers that pay homage to classic films and seem to best illustrate what Temple was trying to accomplish. Bowie’s “That’s Motivation” is a tap dancing duet with the film’s star Eddie O’Connell who resembles a younger Bowie and it recalls U.S. and British musicals of the past including Ready, Willing & Able (1937), There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and Bombay Talkie (1970). And the elaborate cutaway set design used for Ray Davies’ solo during “The Quiet Life” is reminiscent of sets seen in classic comedies such as The Cameraman (1928) and The Ladies Man (1961). The popular jazz and soul singer Sade also appears as a sultry chanteuse who serenades a crowded night club with the spirited melody “Killer Blow” in a scene that evokes Lena Horne. Other significant pop culture figures that make appearances in the film include the infamous model and showgirl Many Rice-Davies as Colin’s mother and popular British TV personality Lionel Blair (A Hard Day’s Night; 1964) who plays a slimy talent scout.
Jazz legend Gil Evans wrote the film’s score, which was produced by Clive Langer & Alan Winstanley who are probably best known today for their work with Elvis Costello. Beside the aforementioned musical artists, it also includes songs by The Style Council, Jerry Dammers and Nick Lowe as well as new arrangements of jazz standards originally composed by Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. Julien Temple shot an impressive music video to accompany David Bowie’s title track which got heavy rotation on MTV and eventually reached #2 in the UK single charts. The failure of the film to find an appreciative audience and the indisputable success of Bowie’s accompanying song seemed to solidify the critical consensus that Temple’s filmmaking skills were better suited for music television instead of full-length motion pictures.
Besides revitalizing the British film industry, Absolute Beginners was expected to make stars of its two young leads but after its release Eddie O’Connell was quickly forgotten and ended up sporadically appearing in British television programs. The real star to emerge from the film was undoubtedly 18-year-old Patsy Kensit who played Suzette. At the time the pretty and perky blond was considered somewhat of a triple threat who could sing, dance and act but the film didn’t revive the public’s interest in musicals, which might have made great use of Kensit’s many talents. She went on to make notable appearances in a number of films including Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), Twenty-One (1991) and Angels and Insects (1995) while managing a successful pop music career in Britain. Her marriages to musicians such as Jim Kerr (Simple Minds) and Liam Gallagher (Oasis) continued to make headlines but she never had the wide-ranging career that so many assumed she would.
While the film may not have found an audience in 1986 it has gained a small cult following that will undoubtedly continue to grow over time. The vibrant set pieces, snappy dialogue and enthusiastic cast make it easy to forgive the film’s shortcomings. And Temple’s lively direction and penchant for lush long shots distract from the film’s inability to develop an emotional core that would have given the racial conflict it artfully frames more impact. But it’s hard not to admire the movie’s broad ambition and if Absolute Beginners was released today it’s easy to imagine Julien Temple’s contemporary musical receiving the same kind of critical praise and attention that’s been heaped on Baz Luhrmann’s work.
The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg
Pop Music in British Cinema by K.J. Donnelly
Kimberly Lindbergs is a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and regularly contributes to Turner Classic Movies’ official blog, the Movie Morlocks, as well as TCM’s website. She’s also written for Cineaste, Fandor, Cinedelica and Paracinema Magazine and has contributed liner notes for film scores released on Harkit Records and research for Anchor Bay DVD releases. Her special interests include horror films, cult movies and British and Japanese cinema. Her personal film blog Cinebeats has been nominated for a number of awards.
Categories: Guest Star