Colin is a brazen 19-year-old with his finger on the pulse of Soho's burgeoning scene of artists. But when his beautiful girlfriend Suzette tires of their poor and struggling existence, Colin finds himself losing touch with himself and her. And when an older, richer man sweeps Suzette away, a devastated Colin embarks on a desperate journey to win her back!
To my MTV-influenced recollection, ‘Absolute Beginners’ was just another flop film featuring 80s pop music stars, and soon to be joined by other cinematic disasters like ‘Under The Cherry Moon’ and ‘Shanghai Surprise.’ Little did I know watching it twenty years later would be more of an irritating chore than seeing anything starring Prince or Madonna. For all it’s high energy music (arranged and conducted by jazz great Gil Evans!), creative set-designs, earnest choreography, complex camera work, and a screenplay which criticizes commercialism, consumerism, elitism and racism, ‘Absolute Beginners’ is a crash and burn failure from beginning to end. I really disliked this film. A lot.
The story takes place in a surreal version of London, noted by a lively downtown district and a neighboring urban residential area. Though the date is designated as 1958, there are many deliberately anachronistic elements surrounding this stylized environment. The movie stars Eddie O’Connell as Colin, a photographer who courts fashion designer Crepe Suzette, played by Patsy Kensit (of ‘Lethal Weapon 2’ and '21' fame). She is gorgeous, lively and ambitious, while he comes from a lower-class background and neighborhood. She pursues her career in the shallow and superficial world of fashion by following and eventually marrying a player in that industry named Henley, played by James Fox. The principled Colin resists going commercial with his craft, but eventually does so to get Suze back. He then becomes involved with real estate developer Vendice Partners (David Bowie) who has plans to revamp Colin's old neighborhood into a new developement called "White City."
In the meantime, racial tensions begin brewing in that same area, where black residents are terrorized and displaced by a pro-white movement (a reference to the Notting Hill race riots). Naturally, this conflict is directly connected with the corporations run by Henley and Vendice. Eventually, all the characters come together in a big brawl.
In the 1980s Julien Temple directed artists like David Bowie, Janet Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Maria McKee and Neil Young in influential and original videos which were among the highlights of MTV’s offerings. (In fact, I still enjoy becoming reacquainted with shorts like “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” and “Undercover of the Night” on VH-1’s “Pop-Up Video” and “Totally 80s” from time to time.) It was only natural that the noted director should apply his craft to the big screen, where a feature film would sustain a more detailed narrative, a variety of music, and different styles, all based on a book by the same name. The results could have been something really dazzling.
Unfortunately, there are many, many, many problems with this movie, the first and foremost of which is the main character, Colin played by Eddie O’Connell. He is a stoic, anonymous bore, distinguished from the faceless extras in the movie by his stiff hair-style and his even stiffer personality. That he bears some significant resemblance to David Bowie is perhaps the only curiosity to a character who speaks of art and justice, but doesn’t display much conviction except for a sneer here and a grimace there. It certainly doesn’t help that he is supposed to be a teenager, when he looks older than most graduate students and behaves like some punk 12-year old. Since the rest of the movie is similarly dull and clichéd, it’s hard to tell if it’s the director or the actor who is at fault with creating such am empty protagonist. Given the limited number of roles Mr. O’Connell has had since ‘Absolute Beginners,’ I suppose we’ll never know.
This movie has also been compared to Walter Hill’s cult classic ‘Streets of Fire’ which came out in 1984. Both films spotlight musical performances and feature warring factions within a modernized 1950’s setting. While Walter Hills’ “rock and roll fable” is far from a masterpiece, ‘Absolute Beginners’ doesn’t come close to matching its energy and creativity. Even worse, the music is pedestrian and flat. Some of the lyrics belabor the obvious motivations and conduct of the characters, such as when Kensit sings repeatedly and monotonously “you’ll never stop me from having it all” to our hero the photographer right before their break-up. Song titles like “Quiet Life” (sung by Ray Davies, who is stuck in a dwelling filled with chaos) and “Selling Out” (which takes place at a pretentious dinner party full of phonies) leave little to the imagination.
Charitably speaking, there are a couple of memorable musical segments. Ray Davies humorously sings his Beatles-like tune inside a two story bed-breakfast, which is photographed as a doll-house cutaway so that we can see all the residents doing their thing. David Bowie’s song “That’s Motivation” takes place on a variety of surreal sets, including a giant type-writer, and an amusingly commercialized Mount Everest peak. These tunes stick out due to the performances, and not because of the song-writing.
If there is a single superficial saving grace to ‘Absolute Beginners,’ then it has to be the visual presence of Patsy Kensit, whose breathy voice, stunning face, and petite figure can’t help but appeal to anyone who finds favor in those qualities. Unfortunately, she appears sporadically after the first hour, and when she does make the occasional appearance, her one-note, self-pitying character fails to salvage the movie. (Sade also makes an eye-batting presence, but only for a quickie stage performance which is even less interesting than her old music videos.) Again, I know it’s tres gauche to have to refer to the “hot chick” as being a reason to watch anything at all (excluding any Michael Bay film or any low-brow comedy), but that is the straw I’m forced to grasp.
As usual, my boredom with ‘Absolute Beginners’ prompted me to look for other ways of finding enjoyment, like pointing out reflections of the camera crew in windows and cars, or noticing that a crowded group of racist rabble-rousers remain obviously closed-lipped even though their rallying cries are heard on the soundtrack. I must also document a brilliantly comedic incident on my part: after another interminable foot-chase scene involving our hero and the white-supremacists, I snickered to my wife “at least there is no dancing during this fight scene” and within seconds, the battle suddenly turned into a bad outtake from ‘West Side Story.’ Boy, oh boy…did we have a hearty guffaw over my ironic remark! (I guess you had to be there.)
There are other groan-inducing moments which stick out: a fist-fight between a black musician and the main villain takes place in the rear alley of a nightclub and represents the climax of the race riot. Their little conflict reaches absurd (and offensive) levels when musician shatters an overhead lamp, creating enough darkness so that he can’t be seen (which I assume is due to his dark skin, and despite the fact that a roaring fire inside the building should create sufficient illumination). Of course, he overtakes his foe, but resists smashing a broken bottle in his face (“You ain’t worth it, whitey!”). Yet that moment isn’t nearly as obscene as what takes place immediately thereafter, when Miles Davis’s classic composition “So What?” (off his noted masterpiece, “Kind of Blue”) is crudely and insultingly adapted into a celebratory pop anthem for the neighborhood. I cringed, shed a tear and said a prayer for the human race.
Blu-ray Disc: Vital Stats
‘Absolute Beginners’ is presented as a single 50 GB disc packaged in a clear keepcase from Twilight Time, a studio specializing in delivering cult classics and other films unfairly ignored by the major studios. The movie opens up to a static main menu.
‘Absolute Beginners’ is letterboxed to preserve its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The high definition 1080p looks great on any widescreen television, with nice detail, strong colors and good black levels. The color scheme looks like this film was made over 40 years ago and restored meticulously. The picture retains it’s inherent grain structure, but the red and blue neon lights of the city look accurate, and contrast well with the more downtrodden setting of the “White City” projects.
At this level of resolution, it’s easier to notice the artificial environment of the studio-bound sets and production design. The picture quality was good enough that I could clearly see the wires pulling David Bowie on top of a giant prop during his musical number. The blacks and golden outfits worn by Patsy Kensit are immediately eye-pleasing, though it’s hard to tell whether it’s because of the person modeling them. I cannot recall a Twilight Time release where the final product appeared fell short of their respectable standards, and the same goes for this movie.
Twilight Time present two DTS-MA soundtracks in 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo. The audio is overall inconsistent when it comes intelligibility and surround sound separation, which is more than likely due to the original production elements than in the transfer. The opening scene comes alive with the narration reproduced in the front three channels, then for dramatic purposes is placed back in the center. Unfortunately, this interesting effect isn't utilized during the remaining dialogue scenes, where voices aren't as intelligible coming dead center. I must have played with the volume controls every ten minutes or so to adjust for the differences in audibility: a lively music performance would suddenly be followed by voices which were comparatively whisper quiet. Some of the lines spoken by British actors are mumbled so poorly (again, a design of production) that I had to turn on captions just to understand the exchange. (The captions are accurate with little to no paraphrasing.)
Certain opportunities at creating a more immersive surround experience were missed in the creation of this musical. Bass reproduction is modest, and with the exception of low-level ambient music, the rear channels are barely, even during scenes of uproarious crowds and street violence.
Isolated Music Score: Acknowledging their appreciation of any movie’s soundtrack and score, Twilight Time presents viewers with the opportunity watching the movie with the music only. I assume that David Bowie, Ray Davies, and Sade fans will want to hear these songs unencumbered by dialogue and sound effects, the studio’s efforts are much appreciated.
An illustrated booklet contains yet another well-written essay by film historian Julie Kirgo. Her enthusiasm and insight will certainly appeal to fans of ‘Absolute Beginners,’ but I can’t muster the wherewithal to give it a second-chance.
Also included is a studio trailer celebrating MGM's 90th Anniversary with clips from its library of classics, and promotional materials from other Twilight Time titles.
I'm sure there are those out there who can appreciate the creative ambitions of a movie like this much more than me. Musicals can be a difficult genre to adapt to the silver screen, and for every enjoyable offering 'Chicago' or 'Grease' we have travesties like 'Graffiti Bridge' and 'Xanadu' (which I kinda liked). I hate to fault a film which tries to offer something a bit different than your average action-packed schlock, but when it's executed this disappointingly, there's not much more one can say. This if for David Bowie or Patsy Kensit fans only.