Absolute Beginners (104 minutes) Rated PG-13/1986 – starring Eddie O’ Connell, Patsy Kensit, David Bowie, James Fox, Ray Davies, Mandy Rice-Davies, Eve Ferret, Tony Hippolyte, Graham Fletcher-Cook, Joe McKenna, Steven Berkoff, and Sade. Directed by Julien Temple. Originally released through HBO Home Video.
To use an overused British observation, “What a bloody mess!” It is a wonder that this mid-80s musical was based on a book by Colin MacInnes because as far as I could fathom, there wasn’t much of anything resembling a story in its translation to the screen. The character of Colin, as played by blank slate Eddie O’Connell, utters this line a half hour into the picture — “if this is life, I’m gonna stay an absolute beginner forever.” One only wishes director Julien Temple had considered this sentiment and never cranked the first shot on this tedious pastiche of Technicolor triviality.
Temple, whose vision was more coherent in one of the Rolling Stones music videos he directed in the early ‘80s, seems to have little regard for plot and character development. The story is set in 1958 London, a time when teen music was becoming more agitated and vibrant. Colin is almost 20 years old and is content to snap pictures of his mates in the Piccadilly Circus area of the city. With an opening number that is reminiscent of the camera maneuvering in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” and Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You” video, Temple swoops the lens around a neon-colored “street life” scene set to a jazzy score. Colin meets up with his gal, Crepe Suzette, played by singer/actress/rock-star wife Patsy Kensit, and the two dance the swing all night long. The fact that the film ends with the two dancing in each other’s arms again shows that the screenwriters at least followed the standard “bookends” formula for a feature musical. However, the fact that nothing of interest happens in their relationship between the opening and concluding dances painfully highlights a complete lack of storytelling ability.
For once Colin and Suzette soon finish their dance, they also part ways…for the entire body of the film! Colin just works his way up the fashion photography ladder, and Suzette becomes successful for dress designs. The bulk of the movie introduces a series of pointless characters that serve to stretch time in such a manner that Einstein might’ve drawn viable data from. Colin interacts with Wizard, a neighborhood grift artist; Big Jill, a prostitute; Harry Charms, a talent scout; his dad, who’s a landlord; and Vendice Partners, a smooth entrepreneur — all of whom could easily have been in other films because they do nothing to add any depth or meaning to the main characters of Colin and Suzette.
Even though he was a veteran of the music video world around the time of this production, Temple’s choreographed pizazz never quite clicks into rhythm for the film. The editing is such that he cuts to stationary scenes during rousing dance numbers rather jarringly, which causes all of the energy to be drained from the ‘darling’ moments. The world he has created is one that is bathed in blue and red neon, which only makes the characters become more one-dimensional. While the jazz numbers, covering everything from Gil Evans to Charlie Mingus, set a vibrant bed of “cool” throughout the film, the songs people like Kensit, David Bowie and Ray Davies, of the Kinks, sing are rather bland and third rate.
Patsy Kensit, who at the time was in the British pop band Eighth Wonder, exudes Ann-Margret charm in a vampy way, especially during the film’s only standout number, when she enlivens a stuffy fashion runway show with risque audacity. However, for the rest of the movie, she is left to either pout or just smile. She said recently to Gear magazine that director Temple “didn’t speak to us. It was awful. I was playing this sexually active girl that I had no understanding of.” Kensit was 16 at the time. David Bowie fared slightly better. As the cocksure businessman Partners, he at least has one moment of fun, dancing about a giant typewriter, goading teens with a whip singing “That’s Motivation.” The problem with Bowie’s part, again, is that once the number was over, he really had no more relevance to the narrative. The few scattered scenes of dialogue he does have come across as stilted because for some reason, Bowie chose to talk in what he thought was an American accent. It’s the same awkward sounding voice one hears when Michael Caine actually believes he’s performing an American accent. As for Ray Davies, who plays Colin’s dad, he seems to fumble for tone while singing about his adulterous wife in the high-camp number “Quiet Life.” This one scene with Ray plays like a bedroom farce, as boarders in his home scurry about, and Davies truly looks as if he’s searching the set for signs of his paycheck.
The slinky singer Sade is used to her best abilities, namely just singing and not acting. Mirroring her “Smooth Operator” video, she simply stands before a jazzy ensemble, looks stunning in her blue sequin dress, and warbles the smoky tune “Killer Blow.” In stark contrast, the movie’s worst moments hit home as the film laboriously stumbles into its final act. The shift in the movie’s tone has gone from lightweight, Doris Day to a “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” kind of vibe and finally to a kitschy Hitler youth production of West Side Story. Indeed, by film’s end, racist thugs, or rather, teddy boys, sling the “N” word around and burn up an African-American neighborhood, all the while jumping about like strutting alley cats breaking into Debbie Allen moves.
If not for Bowie’s excellent rendition of the title tune over the credits and Sade’s decent delivery of her number, the need for any eyes to ever view this film would be pointless. When Colin witnesses a Third Reichian hatemonger stirring up a crowd, he retorts, “This guy’s flipped, man!” One could apply that assessment to Julien Temple’s clueless and clunky take on “Absolute Beginners.”
© 2001 Ned Truslow