Alongside The Mission and Revolution, Absolute Beginners was accused of destroying the British film industry in the mid to late 1980’s. It was bad luck for Goldcrest, the studio behind Julian Temple’s lavish production, as they backed-up all three films, released them at nearly the same time, and in turn, all three flopped at the box office. This destroyed their reputation for some time, but you know what they say, three strikes and you’re out. Unlike The Mission and Revolution, Absolute Beginners is the odd duckling of the bunch. It is not a historical epic like the other two, it was a musical fusing together music with big political and social statements. It has gathered a cult following over the years and for good reason. The sets, lighting and cinematography are vibrant and the music infectious, though does the story still hold up?
Based off the Colin MacInnes book of the same name, the film is set in London during the late 1950’s. The jazz scene was just on its way out and the early rock ‘n’ roll pioneers were on their way in. Aspiring photographer Colin (Eddie O’Connell) is in love with enthusiastic fashion model, Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit), however both their ambitions prevent from ever caring about each other. Colin is in love with the world that he lives in and thus driving him to obsession, whilst Crepe wildly dances around the catwalk in love with her career alone. Colin attempts to win her over, but racial tensions begin to intensify as the neighbourhood erupts into chaos.
Absolute Beginners was slaughtered by British critics upon release, whereas America was more favourable towards it. Ironic considering it made more money in the UK than it did overseas. The plot is thin on the surface and can be seen as clichéd, just a man trying to win a woman over. But what wraps this all together is the sheer audio and visual spectacle that Temple has conjured up, whilst the other half is tied up in a bow of political and social commentary. This is a world where first-time label “boy bands” receive top 40 success with their first single, despite another group of competent musicians performing the music a sound booth away. And Colin is forced into a White Supremacist lecture by some bigot. The subtext is in your face and not subtle in the slightest. However, it doesn’t really feel fully realized and isn’t particularly smart in projecting its theme other than media satirization, a lot of the stereotypes are over the top. The White Supremacist leader barks his rhetoric with such fury that you see his saliva fly across to the back of the hall, whilst the boy band play mime along to the piped in music.
As a result, the lack of subtlety in the commentary and the sheer spectacle leaves the viewer lost with its own story. However, that doesn’t mean to say that the film is bad. The sets, lighting and colour schemes are jaw dropping. From the very first tracking shot of Colin wandering through the neon-lit and bustling London streets, to the final shot of a ring hitting the rainbow coloured water, the visual blur of colours is an incredible experience that makes the film so entertaining. This is an eccentric colour palette for a very eccentric world. The film weaves elements of the 1958 Notting Hill riots into its own narrative, but instead of people beating the living crap out of each other, they dance in packs whilst using their baseball bats and pipes as cabaret sticks. A definite nod to the classic era of Hollywood musicals, for a film made at a time where musicals were irrelevant.
With its eccentric cast of characters played by numerous British music legends, including Ed Tudor-Pole (a.k.a. the most underrated game show host ever for The Crystal Maze) who plays a greaser named Ed the Ted. Tudor-Pole has slicked backed hair and has a massive musical number in a wasteland of garbage. He slings his pocket watch like a yo-yo, and puts in a bad but fun cockney accent, as he spits the words to Colin, “I can live where I like, it’s a free country, ain’t it?” Ray Davies of The Kinks fame plays Colin’s father, who Colin describes as “the sweetest bloke that you would ever want to meet”, only he has the misfortune of being locked up with the most uncontrollable, dysfunctional family. But the person who received top billing despite only having a supporting role is, the one, the only David Bowie. He plays a business mogul named Vendice Partners, a name that sounds more like a companies. As Partners, Bowie puts on a rather cooky American accent but who cares about that? It’s David Bowie. He dances on giant typewriters, appears in mirrors, television screens, the lot – and takes on Colin on at tap dancing. If that doesn’t scream fun, then I don’t know what will.
Absolute Beginners is all over the place; everything is hammed up – it is loud, brash, and a mess. An ambitious and splendid mess. It is such a crying shame that this got panned by the British press, including a columnist who gave a list of ’10 reasons not to watch Absolute Beginners’. Absolute Beginners is not what the British press made it out to be. As for what it is, Temple wanted to craft it as a message towards the youth of the time, combining a political message with a wide array of music. It was misunderstood at the time and now that Second Sight have put it out in glorious HD for its Blu Ray release, Absolute Beginners deserves a second chance in the spotlight.
- Brand new restoration
- DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM Stereo audio options
- Absolute Ambition ; a newly produced 53 documentary. Features interviews with Julien Temple, Stephen Woolley, Nik Powell, Oliver Stapleton, John Beard, Ted Tudor Pole and Eddie O Connell
- English Subtitle for the Hard of Hearing