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Absolute Beginners Film

A manic pop musical set in and around the coffee bars and jazz joints of Soho and Notting Hill in the 1950s that placed the likes of David Bowie and Ray Davies shoulder to shoulder with 80s icons like Sade, it's a film that was slaughtered critically at the time and has languished largely unloved ever since.

absolute beginners film

Watching it today in its brand new Blu-ray issue from Second Sight, Absolute Beginners still feels like a film that's fatally flawed, but one that's worthy of a second chance at redemption all the same.

Purr Blur: Near the beginning of the film Colin is walking through the streets of Soho and commenting on the action there. A woman steps out of a doorway holding what appears to be a black cat. A cat screech confirms this.

Attempts to find new approaches have resulted in such interesting one-shots as ``Cabaret'' and ``Pennies From Heaven,'' but they've produced no successful offspring. For the past decade or so, the only films to nod firmly in the direction of movie-musical tradition have hedged their songs and dances with paradoxically grim subject matter, as in ``All That Jazz,'' or filled their leading roles with Muppets.

In saying this, I take for granted that so-called rock musicals aren't really musicals at all, in the time-honored sense. They're a thing apart, aimed at a primarily young audience that has drawn its pop-music experience from radio disc jockeys rather than Broadway shows. One or two of the early rock musicals (especially the epic ``Tommy'') suggested that rock-and-roll might bring a fresh energy and inventiveness to film musicals, but that hope was swamped by a wave of junk like ``Grease'' and ``Can't Stop the Music,'' among many others. By now it seems that the traditional musical has expired for good, and that the rock musical (along with its somewhat more creative cousin, the country-music film) is stuck in a dull rut.

If there's a way out of this predicament, it may be suggested by the newest of all audiovisual forms: the music video, spawned by cable TV and currently gaining attention (like ``video art'' and cinema before it) on the museum circuit. Video-crafted shorts called ``music zaps'' are already an attraction at some theaters, and now a feature film has arrived that combines a whole arsenal of music-video mannerisms with gambits borrowed from older movie-musical forms.

This being the case, it's too bad the whole movie doesn't live up to the promise it shows at the start. While the story remains more or less stylized, it bogs down in giggly vulgarity and eruptions of nasty violence that aren't justified by the film's cautionary theme of youthful idealism up against fascist hate and power-lust.

Still, some of the music is far more inventive than the disco-drivel that infests so many films these days, and the plot raises warnings about racism and materialism that are as valid today as they were three decades ago. Also refreshing is the varied cast, which includes not only new faces but such veterans as singer Ray Davies, actor James Fox, and singer/actor David Bowie.

With character names like Dido Lament, Crepe Suzette, The Wizard, Fabulous Haplite, Big Jill, Vendice Partners, Ed the Ted, Baby Boom, Mr. Cool, and Henley of Mayfair, the story focuses on two teenage lovers, Suzette, a fashion designer, and Colin, a photographer, as she skyrockets to the top of the fashion world and he tries to hold on to his artistic ideals while he loses her affections. The film touches on several issues, including the birth of The Teenager as a cultural phenomenon (and potential market), British racism (directed at West Indian immigrants) and class prejudice, rabid post-World War II commercialism, early rock and roll, and race riots (based on the real life Notting Hill riot in 1958).

FIVE EASY PIECES (1970). In the late 1960s, Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner combined their first initials to create BBS Productions, an outfit devoted to producing artful films primarily for youthful audiences tired of Hollywood's conventional offerings. Between 1968 and 1972, they oversaw seven movies, all but one featuring Jack Nicholson in some capacity (as actor, director and/or screenwriter). Following BBS' first two features, The Monkees romp Head (co-written by Nicholson and Rafelson) and the box office smash Easy Rider (earning Nicholson the first of his countless Oscar nominations for his show-stealing supporting turn), Nicholson was placed front and center by writer-director Rafelson in Five Easy Pieces, one of the defining movies of the early 1970s. A new kind of picture even for its era, this absorbing character study dared to make its protagonist, Bobby Dupea (Nicholson), often unlikable. Yet in Bobby's inability to get a grasp on his own values and self worth, it also made him an easily relatable character for its turbulent time, a period mourning the death of '60s idealism and rocked by the war raging in Vietnam. Nicholson's performance as an oil-rigger who's soon revealed to be a pianist escaping from his upper-class roots still stands as one of his greatest (who can't help but love the classic "chicken salad sandwich" scene?), and the stellar cast also includes Karen Black (as Bobby's doting girlfriend), Sally Struthers (a year away from All in the Family immortality), Ralph Waite (two years away from The Waltons fame), future pop star Toni Basil, and future Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe author Fannie Flagg. This earned four major Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress (Black) and Original Screenplay (Rafelson and Carole Eastman). Black's superb performance, the finest supporting turn of the year, nabbed her a Golden Globe as well as prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review; alas, the Academy idiotically gave its award as a sentimental sop to 70-year-old Helen Hayes, whose winning turn in Airport was accurately described by the New York Times' Vincent Canby as, "let's face it, just a teentsy-weentsy bit terrible."

As racial tensions mount in Notting Hill, Colin tries to win Crêpe Suzette's heart, riding around the London streets on a smart silver Vespa GS 150. There is an amusing scene when he loses his concentration and crashes into an advertisement for the Vespa (bearing the slogan: Betta Getta Vespa). Here are some stills from the film and, below, the Vespa ads for the UK market from 1961.

Music videos ruled between roughly 1983 and 1990, the gap between Michael Jackson's Beat It and the rise of Rap to the mainstream. One of the hottest music video directors in England was Julien Temple, who had gotten his start on film documenting the Sex Pistols and The Kinks. Goldcrest broke the bank to finance Absolute Beginners, a giant, gaudy musical in brilliant color and Super Techniscope. It was quite the buzz for awhile in Los Angeles, having a very brief theatrical run but playing quite a bit on the old "Z" cable channel, a home for hip movies that bombed in the theaters.

The night comes alive on the streets, where the connected as well as the wannabes flaunt their radical images and vie for attention. Our narrator Colin (Eddie O'Connell) flits through the center of it all, taking pictures that he hopes will capture the craze (as director Temple's films did for The Sex Pistols a decade and a half later). The other fifty or so characters are a giant ensemble of crazies, most with a goofy name. Each has something to sell, an ambition to pursue or a racket to work at.

Early on there is a brief Jets-Sharks type face-off between Mods and Trads. The film's historically accurate violent finish stages a clash between thugs and a new population of 'Commonwealth Immigrants,' from Africa, the West Indies and India, that had began pouring in starting in around 1955. The movie stages a large, partially musicalized race riot, with Blacks vs. paid-goon Teddy Boys. So Absolute Beginners makes a strong anti-racist statement as well. 2

Temple's show has a certain vibe that either hits or doesn't. There's a gay/bi/free lifestyle sensibility running through the show that certainly adds to its vitality. I'd have to say that one witnesses the film more than gets deeply involved. Straights like myself must concentrate to keep all the weird players differentiated, while the self-conscious formula romance pushes O'Connell and Kensit as bright and talented possible stars, without engaging us emotionally. If Absolute Beginners didn't take off when new it's not anybody's fault, as we all know that completely lame pop music movies have done extremely well. The timing, distribution and promotion must not have been there for this one.

For extras Twilight Time offers only its Isolated Score Track, which for this film should be extra enough -- the 107-minute show must have a hundred minutes of music, and will make a great background concert track. Louis Falzarano's good design sense captures the feel of Absolute Beginners in the disc's cover imagery. Essayist Julie Kirgo makes a great case for the film's rebirth, and indeed asks why it wasn't a breakthrough hit in the first place. 1986 was a good year for things retro and camp - even high camp. Pee-Wee Herman was a hit for little kids. I can only think that the particular historical period in Brit teen culture didn't connect with the 1986 American audience.

1. Not yet 'rediscovered,' Expresso Bongo is Val Guest and Wolf Mankowitz's look at the same pop scene pictured in Absolute Beginners, with Laurence Harvey as a pushy Jewish talent agent and Cliff Richard as a callow pop star. It's frenzied in its own way, with stylized, machine-gun dialogue. A big hit (in England), it helped everyone's career -- Mankowitz and Guest proceeded directly to another artistic and box office success, the science fiction film Day the Earth Caught Fire. Return


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