‘I remember that hot, wonderful summer… when the teenage miracle reached full bloom…’
If you like to see legendary pop stars (David Bowie, Ray Davies and Sade) playing a whole spectrum of odd characters, fighting that is blended into dancing (think 1/3 West Side Story with 2/3’s Michael Jackson’s Beat It), a series of loosely interconnected social critiques (racism, capitalism and adolescence collide to create all-out warfare) and a central love story between two gorgeous, simpering leads (Patsy Kensit and Eddie O’Connell)… Well, you’re in for a treat.
It’s 1958. Jazz and rock’ n’ roll are infecting the nation. Courtesy of our friends over the pond it is inspiring the new generation of 13-19 year olds to adopt a new moniker – ‘teenager’. Colin is one of this new breed – cruising around his lair in Notting Hill, snapping pictures of the natives in Soho and dodging back home in Pimlico to develop his photos – He is constantly living in the moment and doing exactly what he loves. As he explains in his voice-over narration, ‘I’ve got anything against money. It’s just what you have to do to get it.’
Yet he is willing to give up this skepticism because this summer he finally has a reason to; Crepe Suzette. She’s a special kind of woman; gorgeous, leggy and bold as brass. But women like Suzette won’t just stick around and settle. They could easily be snatched away by promises of better. That’s where Venedice Partners (David Bowie) comes in. He doesn’t sell things. He sells dreams. And Colin is going to help him do that, because he is an official teenager. They are both marketable and easy to market. Colin becomes immersed in this world, a world of style over substance, missing all of the signs that something big is going down in his adopted home.
Put simply, this is a far from perfect film. It’s pacing is off, events occur that are either under or over developed, often with little clear linkage between scenes. It has a reputation, an unwanted tagline, of being the film that temporarily destroyed the British film industry. This is a somewhat warranted view, yet ignores some of the unique joys the film has to offer. Yes, you do get to see David Bowie tap-dance his way around a giant globe. Yes, you do get to see Bruno Tonioli as a horny lodger. Yes, you also get to see Robbie Coltrane in a walk-on role as a café owner called Mario. Yes, Lionel Blair plays a music impresario with a predilection for young boys (the creepiness level of which has intensified considering the majority of the 1970s has been arrested in recent years…).
These, perhaps rather niche, components are small pleasures. The main reason to see this film is to see an idiosyncratic blend of 1950s and 1980s youth culture; through the development and peak of adolescence. The atmosphere is hot and tense, as are its characters. With hints of a bildungsroman narrative we get to see a dream-like version of the past and feel nostalgic for a lifetime that few of us actually got to live. With a fierce soundtrack, some incredibly well-choreographed routines, beautiful sets (top of the lot had to be the Pimlico dollhouse-like interior sequence, sound tracked with Ray Davies singing ‘Quiet Life’) and a few rather profound throwaways (‘Money isn’t everything.’/’I know but it’ll do ’till everything comes along.’)
Absolute Beginners sure makes for an enjoyable ride. An under-watched and perhaps underappreciated cinematic cruise into culture both fact and fiction; Absolute Beginners is a film that deserves more consideration that it’s box office failure status.
Dir: Julien Temple
Scr: Richard Burridge, Christopher Wicking, Don MacPherson
Cast: Patsy Kensit, Eddie O’Connell, David Bowie, James Fox, Ray Davies, Lionel Blair, Steven Berkoff, Sade, Edward Tudor-Pole
Prd: Chris Brown, Stephen Wooley
DOP: Oliver Stapleton
Music: Gil Evans
Country: United Kingdom
Run time: 108 Minutes
Absolute Beginners is available on Blu-Ray & DVD now.