Absolute Beginners first crossed my radar last week when a friend showed me a clip of David Bowie dancing on a typewriter. “Big deal,” scoffed I, a connoisseur of Indian cinema. “Merchant and Ivory did that with Hindi superstars ages ago.”* Discovering that David Bowie could tap dance turned out to be the least of the surprises this weird film holds—and not just because it’s totally obvious that of course David Bowie would be at least a triple threat.
The film follows teenage photographer Colin (Eddie O’Connell) through his professional, cultural, and interpersonal wanderings during a hot London summer in the late 1950s. “Hot London summer” is not the only factor that makes Absolute Beginners feel like it was written for the summer of 2022: self-conscious posing and image creation, over-eager use of a ubiquitous camera in inappropriate moments, despair at the responsibilities of adulthood, anti-Black and anti-immigrant domestic fascists, and violent dishousing and gentrification are all ultra relatable right now.
Colin represents everything we understand teenagers to be about. He’s so cool he keeps his LPs and his clothes in stylish refrigerators. His run-down flat is in an unfashionable neighborhood where everyone—young, old, Windrush generation, Italian—has little and seems to get along just fine. He grudgingly uses resources in his parents’ house without deigning to interact with them as humans. His simplistic romantic interest in aspiring haberdasher Suzette (Patsy Kensit) hits the rocks when she runs off with the head of the fashion house she works for (a perfectly slimy James Fox), who reads as positively ancient at age 37. Soho, where Colin and friends hang out, is a nexus of all they need: a beat cafe, the Chez Nobody nightclub full of Black musicians (including Sade!), cool passers-by for Colin to photograph. In a series of loosely related vignettes, Colin also interacts with an opportunistic music producer bent on finding the next youth sensation, even if the kid is only 14, a vapid American gossip columnist (Anita Morris), and wolfish advertising executive Vendice Partners (Davie Bowie).** Quite reasonably, he gets the best musical number, “That’s Motivation,” as Vendice introduces Colin to the seductions of advertising, compete with a television with seven channels depicting the deadly sins.
Ultimately, the core pair of teenagers does what we assume they would do. But the impact it has to the world beyond them is minor, which we understand as realistic because we’ve watched idealistic teenagers in real life, and we know that they are very rarely able to make meaningful change. The kiss-off to the establishment by Colin, Suzette, and their peers is facile. No amount of chic clothes and free love will fix the political, social, and economic problems that Britain in the middle of the Thatcher era hadn’t figured out. One of the aspects of the film that really lands well is its willingness to implicate white Britain, both young and old, in racism and other horrors of colonialism. The hard-won victories of the WWII generation are already ignored.
When one of his friends reveals himself to be a violent bigot, Colin’s face is horrified. Suzette is similarly distressed when she realizes that the lux life is ethically uncomfortable. Even before she learns about her husband’s politics, she has already begun to withdraw from the world she thought she wanted. I won’t tell you how the film ends, but let’s just say this is my first experience with a full-blown race riot that uses West Side Story choreography.
Very human problems appear throughout the film. Ray Davies as Colin’s dad has a song aching for small moments of contentment (“I’d rather have them think I’m deaf, dumb, and blind than the aggravation every time I speak my mind”), cleverly set in a dollhouse-style view of the home he shares with a disinterested wife and troublesome boarders.
At the beginning of her arc, Suzette tells Colin he’ll never earn enough money to provide the lifestyle she wants, but even as she sings “You’ll never stop me from having it all” (a phrase that means something different to this fashion-obsessed 50s teenager than it does in today’s screeds about women’s careers and families), she already seems bored, both by the destination she seeks and by the romance sitting in front of her, backed by glassy-eyed beatniks who snap along to the music without paying any attention to the singer. Suzette is in the process of learning the very grown-up lesson that emotions are both an inconvenience and a necessity.
Absolute Beginners is an infamous flop, and while I love its ambitions, I can’t really fault contemporary audiences for not being interested in going to the cinema for a musical about social ills. The way it’s structured, with so many scenes that do interrelate but often feel like they don’t, made me wonder if it would have done better on MTV, a series of videos for an LP. I could believe that director Julien Temple took the age-old complaint about musicals that song sequences jar some viewers out of the flow of a film as a challenge, making the songs so juicy and the tissue around them so inconsequential that he’s daring us to find another way to get our brains around the entire work. As someone who watches a lot of musicals, I’m up for it.
It’s impressive, but it’s also depressing. It’s candy-colored and utterly crammed full of visual details and simultaneously unafraid of the rot in the center. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’d like to see more. Maybe now that we have so many more platforms to distribute films and so much more access to content that may have once seemed niche, we (or at least “we” in cultures that tend to segment off our cinematic musicals into their own category) could get more films that are brave enough to use music and dance for razzle-dazzle and for social change.
For Guest Star Kimberly Lindberg’s take on Absolute Beginners, click here.
* If you’re into typewriters in musical numbers: Merchant and Ivory’s film Bombay Talkie was not the first to have people dance on a typewriter either. There’s a fantastic scene in the 1937 film Ready Willing and Able for “Too Marvelous for Words.” Of these three examples, only the Indian typewriter, choreographed by Sudarshan Dhir, has keys that actually spring down and up, advancing the degree of difficulty impressively. Point: Bollywood. If you know of other such musical numbers, please leave a comment!
** Every time I heard this character name, I thought of Jarndyce v Jarndyce from Bleak House, which is probably not on purpose, but if it is, then advertising is a swamp from which we’ll never escape…so yeah, that feels 2022 too.
Beth always pays attention to the band when she snaps her finger in beatnik applause.