Director: Julien Temple
Screenplay: Richard Burridge
Based on the novel by: Colin MacInnes
Producers: Chris Brown
Starring: Eddie O’Connell, Patsy Kensit, David Bowie, James Fox, Ray Davies
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 108 mins
There’s an easy way to start a review about Absolute Beginners which I’m sure has been the basis of many reviews prior to this one. You begin by saying how marvellous Absolute Beginners is, a masterpiece, one of the highlights of the 80s. You then smirkingly reveal that you were talking about the David Bowie title song all along and proceed to completely bulldoze the accompanying film which, through the magic of contrast, is made to look even more of an atrocity than it would have in the aftermath of a straightforward attack. I’m not above deploying cheap little tricks like this myself when reviewing films I hate but, having finally seen Absolute Beginners after years of hearing about how dreadful it is, I don’t hate it. I’m not about to defend it as one of the great lost films of the 80s but neither is it so bad that it’s worth sneaking up on with snidey stealth tactics. In fact, with some rather large reservations, I quite enjoyed it.
For those unaware of Absolute Beginners’ history, the film emerged at a troubled time for the British film industry and extensive media coverage in the lead up to its release had it earmarked as a possible saviour of the financially flagging British cinema. In the hour long documentary Absolute Ambition which accompanies this 30th anniversary re-release of the film, director Julien Temple accepts responsibility for starting the hype machine too early and setting expectations at such a high level that the overstuffed, rich confection that he finally served up was bound to make people sick. Absolute Beginners is a very strange film indeed. A musical set in 1958 but featuring songs with a distinctively 80s flavour, the film is based on the novel of the same name by Colin MacInnes, which became a cornerstone of Mod culture. Mixing elements of the real Notting Hill race riots, Absolute Beginners struggles to incorporate serious themes of prejudice into a wilfully stylised world where Soho is breathtakingly recreated as a huge stage set and characters talk like cartoon cockneys and move with the wild gesticulations of a silent movie star.
While the deliberate overacting of the large cast is immediately grating (Lionel Blair gets hit in the balls by a microphone stand twice in quick succession, each time going cross-eyed but eliciting only laughs of mild disbelief), the sets are incredible. Temple displays his directing skills wonderfully with a lengthy opening pan round that dreamy Soho set which he packs with characters and details. It feels like stepping into a comic book variation on the real Soho and during this sequence Absolute Beginners has great success in drawing us into its artificial world. Unfortunately, Temple cannot sustain this through visuals alone and when he is quickly let down by his script and his actors, Absolute Beginners flounders. The key to enjoying the film lies in comments made in Absolute Ambition about the process of lighting the film. With so many huge sets to consider, the crew broke the lighting process down into small chunks, never thinking of it as one whole lighting job. Absolute Beginners rewards a similar approach to viewing. If taken as a whole, it feels stodgy and unpalatable but if you enjoy the good bits without letting the bad bits detract from them, the film becomes much more amusing.
Much criticism was heaped on David Bowie at the time of Absolute Beginners release. A condition of Bowie contributing to the music for the film (which he does wonderfully with the title song, one of the highlights of his singles catalogue) was that he also got a role in it. So Bowie plays the part of Pop promoter Vendice Partners, a flashy, manipulative businessman who helps protagonist Eddie get a shot at the big time. Bowie’s various forays into acting, despite some successful turns, were always a popular target for critics but to criticise this performance for being unconvincing seems redundant. Absolute Beginners, by its very nature, is unconvincing and its stars overact to varying degrees. Among them, Bowie’s gamely bombastic performance is one of the better caricatures and the relatively brief time he spends on screen generally lifts the film, as when he tap dances on a giant typewriter. Also enjoyably campy is Ray Davies in a very short appearance as Eddie dad, although he sings just one self-penned, Kinks-lite song and then disappears altogether. If you were going to pick an especially disastrous performance from among the supporting actors, it would have to be Eddie Tudor-Pole as Ed the Ted. Pole throws himself into the role with characteristic flamboyance but even for this film he gives too much, snarling and barking like a cartoon character who has broken free from his animator’s control.
The sheer amount of famous faces in Absolute Beginners is one of the retrospective joys of the film and sharp-eyed viewers will spot Robbie Coltrane, Steven Berkoff and Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli amongst the players. But colourful supporting roles need something to bounce off and, unfortunately, Absolute Beginners’ leading man and woman are almost entirely without personality. Eddie O’Connell and Patsy Kensit play the central lovers with such dead-eyed detachment that it’s hard to care what happens to either of them, whether they end up together or not. This contrast between bland central figures and the scenery-crunching jaws of those that surround them may have been a deliberate trick by Temple but, as with the more serious subject matter of the later scenes, it just seems like an awkward mix. The ideal reference points to shoot for when attempting to combine the comically grotesque with the politically relevant are Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and, to Absolute Beginners credit, I did think of both films while watching it but Temple’s film seems more dedicated to its gurning gargoyles and their sleazy neon world than it does to the racial tensions at the heart of the film’s latter stages. Using the real life Notting Hill race riots to bolster this visual carnival rather than vice versa at best seems misjudged and occasionally feels in slightly bad taste, even as the flaming confrontations of the final act manage to regain the audience’s interest on a visual level at least.
Absolute Beginners is ultimately a failure but it is never a bore. It’s hard to truly dislike a film in which you can see such laudable ambition, in which so much talent is constantly teeming from the screen and in which so much great music is haphazardly thrown at the bewildered audience’s ears. As well as Bowie, there are contributions here from Sade, The Style Council, Jerry Dammers, Ray Davies and Tenpole Tudor and the brilliant score, punctuated by pockets of Pop songs, is consistently humming away alongside the patchwork plot. Absolute Beginners feels like an apt representation of the garish, diverse, exhilarating British music scene of the 1980s and in that respect this energetic misfire is worth a least one watch to enjoy the buzzing energy and visual assault that accompany this aural microcosm. For a film of which I have so many criticisms, the ultimate compliment I can pay Absolute Beginners is that I will probably go back and watch it again sometime.
Absolute Beginners: 30th Anniversary Edition is released by Second Sight on DVD and Blu-ray on 25th July 2016. Special features are as follows:
– Brand new restoration
– DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM Stereo audio options
– Absolute Ambition – a newly produced 53 minute documentary. Features interviews with Julien Temple, Stephen Woolley, Nik Powell, Oliver Stapleton, John Beard, Ed Tudor Pole and Eddie O’ Connell. This informative documentary tells the full story of Absolute Beginners from conception through to legacy and greatly enhances the experience of watching the film for what may otherwise be rather baffled viewers. Context is crucial in understanding Absolute Beginners and it is available here from a series of talking heads. While may of the more famous cast members are absent, those present are engaging and informative.
– English Subtitle for the Hard of Hearing