Rixflix A to Z: Absolute Beginners (1986)

Director: Julien Temple

Orion, 1:47, color
Crew Notables: Colin MacInnes (novel), Gil Evans (score)Cast Notables: Eddie O'Connell, Patsy Kensit, David Bowie, Ray Davies, James Fox, Eve Ferret, Anita Morris, Lionel Blair, Steven Berkoff, Mandy Rice-Davies, Sade Adu, Slim Gaillard, Robbie Coltrane, Bruce Payne, Edward Tudor-Pole
Cinema 4 Rating: 6/9

When this movie came out in 1986, I saw it four times. Four. Dragged friends to it, went by myself, took a date to it. Four times. Why? I had read the excellent novel a couple of years before, but that wasn't the reason. I told myself that it was the chance to see David Bowie and Ray Davies singing and, yes, in Bowie's case, tap-dancing on the big screen. But, no, that wasn't the reason. I was in immediate head over heels love with Crepe Suzette. Or was it Patsy Kensit? No matter; it turns out, neither girl, either the character of Suzette, or the real-life actress/singer Kensit, were my type nor really worth the attention. But at that time, I didn't care. And in truth, I was in love with the whole glorious mess that was Absolute Beginners, from its Touch of Evil-style knockout of an opening shot (not really the opening shot, but close enough...) to Davies' music-hall stylings, and yes, to the Bowie production number, which seems Sinatra/Kelly old school cool, but is still coldly weird in the signature Bowie form.

In 1986, I loved every bit of it, even when telling myself privately that "that bit didn't work" or "that scene bothers me". Twenty years down the road, I will freely admit to the parts that I believe drag it down, and will also admit that I don't enjoy it half as much as I once did. More than ever, Kensit seems to barely inhabit her role, or my heart, for that matter -- she really wasn't my type at all, and while I can forgive my heart or dick for leading me wrong, I can't forgive the film for it. The problem is that all of this hubbub in the story develops because of the lead character's love for this girl, but she is hardly worth it. The film separates the pair, but when he goes to save her from the trouble she and fate have gotten her into, she really hasn't done anything to earn this affection and devotion. To a certain extent, with its cut-and-paste musical references and wayward emotions, I get the feeling that this film was the 1980s version of Moulin Rouge, and I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Baz Luhrmann was a big fan of it.

And the political content in the film, that of the Notting Hill racial riots in the late 50's, seems to take the film far, far from the young teenage rumble that the film plays out for the first hour plus of its running time. Since this material is part of the book, it should be in the film, but as the film starts off as a grand Julian Temple musical experiment, it jettisons this appealing vision just after Sade's excellent Killer Blow sequence, and the last half hour descends into the quite jarring, "White City Riots" material, which is punctuated jerkily with West Side Story-style dance violence, which simultaneously seems out of place and old hat.

It is the remainder of the film: the solid musical sequences, and the youthful drive of the "teenaged" cast that gives Absolute Beginners what joy it has, which is still considerable, despite its demerits as either successful musical or drama. The score by the great Gil Evans is as sharp as Bowie's suit, and it was through this film that I developed a love for the music of Slim Gaillard, the man who invented the Flat-foot Floogie (with the Floy-Floy). Even after twenty years, the film is still enjoyable enough for me to still consider Selling Out to its vision. If it only had a clear idea of what its own vision really was...


EggOfTheDead said…
Finally saw Quadrophenia last week and, for the Brit-youth, revolutionary, coming-of-age, post-war perspective, it reminded me of Absolute Beginners (which I haven't seen since 1989.) I definitely would've been a Rocker, not a Mod. The dress code was so much easier.

Julien Temple ... remember "Who Killed Bambi," or whatever his breakout Sex Pistols doc' was called? Man, he was cool in the '80s.

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