Absolute Beginners celebrates its 30 year anniversary with a new Blu-Ray release…
In Soho in 1958, a youth revolution is beginning. Pre-Beatles, Britain was always too British to quite get rock and roll, so jazz is the music of the moment, mod the fashion, and permissiveness the attitude. The cult of the teenager is born. One teenager in particular, nineteen-year-old photographer Colin (Eddie O’Connell), seems to matter. From what we see of his photography, it’s unremarkable; but, as I said, the idea of the teenager is fast becoming a cult, and hapless young Eddie soon finds himself buffeted between various forces: there is his self-centred model girlfriend Crepe Suzette, played by an impossibly cute eighteen-year-old Patsy Kensit; there are a number of sleazy impresarios – most notably, David Bowie – looking to make a quick buck out of the trend; there is his sense of loyalty to his scene and his simultaneous opposition and attraction to the idea of selling out; most alarmingly, there is a rising tide of anti-immigrant invective pedalled by thinly-disguised Enoch Powell substitutes and bought into by Teddy Boy loyalists who refuse to recognise that their scene is dead.
A rare non-documentary film from Julien Temple, Absolute Beginners thoroughly flopped on its first release in 1986, its downfall taking with it Goldcrest Films, of Chariots of Fire, Ghandi and The Mission fame. While The Mission, a difficult but genuinely fascinating film tanked too, Chariots of Fire and Ghandi had been the sort of safe, solid, inspirational, classy, but hollow pictures that have come to be expected from the British cinema – Goldcrest, incidentally, recently relaunched with the apolitical The Iron Lady – and the UK was briefly on top of the world. It was a huge and somewhat baffling gamble for Goldcrest to spend so much money on something so offbeat as a rocking social history jazz musical directed by a punk, and watching it now it seems almost designed to fail.
For starters, its serious social-historical, class-relational, and racial elements seem better suited to documentary, to social realism, or really to anything at all than to the musical. Additionally, the set design itself even makes use of the conceit that we’re seeing a stage show, with artificial stage doors and awnings standing in for the very real grime and sleaze of Soho. It’s an interesting idea, and one that even works occasionally, but the big, cheesy lighting and intentional fakeness make it hard to take things seriously. That’s another problem: the tone is wholly uneven, the sort of picture that can follow up a race riot with a song-and-dance ending. Many of the actors, including a dubiously-American Bowie and a snobbish James Fox, are playing ham, while others aren’t. None of this would necessarily be a problem except that we’ve been promised a film about the 50s and been given one about the 1980s, tonally, stylistically, visually and, most especially, musically, with songs from David Bowie, Sade, and the Style Council. It doesn’t feel like we learn anything because it doesn’t feel like we’re inhabiting a world that ever existed.
The film Absolute Beginners ends up most resembling is The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, in that it isn’t meant to be a documentary, or a docudrama, or a history lesson, or whatever, but two hours of thorough artifice-for-artifice’s-sake. It isn’t likeable, or even enjoyable, but what it is is interesting and novel, especially so looking back from an age in which allowing a director so unpredictable to take a gamble so great on a film so inevitably doomed simply would not happen anymore.
Absolute Beginners is released today (25th) on Blu-Ray, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!