|David Bowie as the advertising executive Vendice Partners, Patsy Kensit as the model Crêpe Suzette, and Eddie O'Connell as Colin Young, an alter ego of Colin MacInnes, the author of the novel on which the musical is based.|
M: Gil Evans. M: "Hancock's Half Hour", "Here Comes the Bride", "Rock a Bye Baby", "Sleepy Lagoon", "Teddy Bears' Picnic". M songs: "Santa Lucia", "Landlords and Tenants", "Absolute Beginners", "That’s Motivation", "Volare", "Riot City", "Quiet Life", "Having It All", "Selling Out", "Rocking at the 21's" "Bongo Rock", "Little Cat", "Napoli", "Hey Little Schoolgirl", "Rock Baby Rock", "Killer Blow", "Scorpio", "So What", "Have You Ever Had It Blue", "Ted Ain't Dead", "Rodrigo Bay", "Boogie Stop Shuffle", "Better Git It In Your Soul", "The Naked and The Dead", "Va Va Voom", "Switching It Off", "Great Balls of Fire", "My Mammy".
C: Patsy Kensit (Crêpe Suzette), Eddie O'Connell (Colin Young), David Bowie (Vendice Partners), James Fox (Henley of Mayfair), Ray Davies (Arthur), Mandy Rice-Davies (Mum), Eve Ferret (Big Jill), Tony Hippolyte (Mr. Cool), Graham Fletcher-Cook (Wizard), Joseph McKenna (Fabulous Hoplite), Steven Berkoff (The Fanatic), Sade (Athene Duncannon), Tenpole Tudor / Edward Tudor-Pole (Ed the Ted), Bruce Payne (Flikker), Alan Freeman (Call-Me-Cobber), Anita Morris (Dido Lament), Paul Rhys (Dean Swift), Julian Firth (The Misery Kid), Chris Pitt (Baby Boom), Lionel Blair (Harry Charms), Gary Beadle (Johnny Wonder), Robbie Coltrane (Mario), Jess Conrad (Cappuccino Man), Ronald Fraser (Amberley Drove), Irene Handl (Mrs. Larkin), Peter-Hugo Daly (Vern), Amanda Jane Powell (Dorita), Johnny Shannon (Saltzman), Sylvia Syms (Cynthia Eve), Robert Austin (Slim Brother), Johnny Edge (Trader Horn), Carmen Ejogo (Carmen), Paul Fairminer (Eddie Sex), Jim Dunk (Slim Brother), Sandie Shaw (Baby Boom's Mum).
Helsinki premiere: 30.5.1986 Gloria with Finnish / Swedish subtitles n.c. – telecast: 29.8.1990 YV3, 16.8.1997 YLE TV2, 28.3.2003 Subtv – vhs: Alfa-Panorama Film / Video, Karelia Food, Videofirma Makuuni – VET 93771 – K14 – 2940 m / 108 min
A vintage KAVI print viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (David Bowie 1947-2016), 28 May 2016
Julien Temple started his film career with Sex Pistols, also directing their music video for "God Save The Queen". His feature film debut was The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, one of the most unforgettable rock films ever made, recording the incredible, volcanic energy of Sex Pistols, and also the fraud involved in it all, seen from the viewpoint of Malcolm McLaren, alienating the Pistols.
Temple was a pioneer of the burgeoning music video phenomenon, trusted by David Bowie, The Kinks, and Sade among others (Temple directed the "Smooth Operator" video for Sade). Out of this creativity grew also the feature film adaptation of Absolute Beginners, Colin MacInnes's novel about the birth of youth culture in Britain.
One of the most expensive British films, Absolute Beginners became a magnificent musical in Temple's hands. It flopped awfully. Although I admired The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle as a masterpiece, thought highly of Temple as a music video director, and read a lot of coverage about Absolute Beginners, I did not go to see it and saw it now for the first time.
The film musical as a genre of creative brilliance died with the Hollywood studio system during the five or so years after Funny Face. Much that is good has been made since, but the assured creative panache never returned. The atmosphere, the professional teams, and the infrastructure for the film musical vanished for good. After the rock revolution of the 1950s great pop films have appeared in many forms but the show business musical genre is not the most propitious of them. In fact, the musical is an ideal form for the preceding popular music culture against which the rock generation rebelled.
Absolute Beginners is a well made film, it features top talent, and the production values are high, but there is a lack of an irresistible dynamic surge in the structure as a whole. Patsy Kensit and Eddie O'Connell are very attractive in the leading roles, but the roles are underwritten, and we never have a sense of a compelling feeling for the characters they play.
Having said that there is much to like. Absolutely Beginners is firmly grounded in its historical moment, the year 1958. Britain has struggled first with the war and then with the post-war reconstruction. Colin is called by his parents "a blitz baby". Life has been hard and grey. Finally it is time for colour to break out. The ultra-saturated colour world of Absolute Beginners is an expression of that urge, that turn.
The new youth culture is open to people of all colours and sexual orientations, but there is an escalating reactionary opposition. Violent street gangs and neo-fascist task forces attack liberals and people of colour. There are street fights, houses are burnt, people of colour are brutally harassed. Our protagonists unite for freedom, against oppression.
Julien Temple invents new kinds of production numbers for his musical. The soundtrack is rich with musical idioms relevant to the period, from Italian pop ("Volare") to skiffle, jazz ("So What" from Miles Davis's Kind of Blue) and early ska.
The "Quiet Life" production number by Ray Davies can be compared with the satirical music video "Predictable" that Temple had directed for The Kinks. It is overflowing with ideas; both share a set that resembles The Ladies' Man by Jerry Lewis. Also in The Rolling Stones's "Neighbours" video, not directed by Temple, a similar set was used. Ray Davies plays Colin's father; his mother is played by Mandy Rice-Davies, no relation to Ray Davies but notorious from the Profumo scandal and an actual Soho veteran of the era depicted.
"That's Motivation", David Bowie's production number, can be compared with Frank Tashlin (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) in its satire of the 1950s advertizing world.
Tenpoint Tudor's "Ted Ain't Dead" number is a wild and menacing showcase of the Teddy Boy phenomenon.
The most beautiful number is Sade's "Killer Blow" at the Chez Nobody jazz club where Colin is getting drunk and smoking a joint after a humiliating experience at a television show where the host completely misrepresents everything. Afterwards the stoned Colin has a dangerous accident at his scooter.
The powerful music arrangement is by the great jazz musician Gil Evans who had worked with Miles Davis since the 1940s. There is a general feeling of engrossing crescendo towards the final numbers during the end credits (the second appearance of David Bowie's theme song and "Va Va Voom"), a sense of an exhilarating energy that forces of reaction cannot contain.
There is a lot going on in Absolute Beginners, too much, in fact. There are attractions in every shot but no sense of a natural rhythm or breathing. Everything is on the surface, and there is no feeling of psychological depth.
The print is complete, and the saturation of the warm colour feels right.
OUR PROGRAM NOTE BASED ON SAKARI TOIVIAINEN: