Film review – Absolute Beginners (Julien Temple, 1986)

Panned on its original release and a complete commercial failure [1], Julian Temple’s musical Absolute Beginners is a film that is often cited as the cause of a partial collapse of the British film industry. Looking at it with fresh eyes, the criticisms are undoubtedly harsh, but the film still has too many flaws to warrant anything more than cult status.

The musical charts the on-off romantic relationship between aspiring model Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit) and unestablished photographer Colin (Eddie O’Connell) as they try to make their way in 1950s London. Weaving elements of gang warfare, race riots and youth culture in a way that is almost brilliant, but largely incoherent.

It wuzza strange casting choice

The film starts with the familiar sound of David Bowie’s title track, which was a global hit at the time and proved to be one of his most enduring songs. If, like me, you were made aware of it solely because David Bowie has a named role in the film, then prepare to feel shortchanged. Bowie stars as Vendice Partners, a sales and marketing man who first appears about halfway through the film. By all accounts, his prominence in the film was more a marketing choice than an artistic choice, but his scenes breathe life into a stagnant portion of the film as it threatens to grind to a halt.

Temple was famed for his music videos and by the time this film was released he’d been responsible for some of the most celebrated music videos of the 1980s, including efforts for the likes of The Beat, Culture Club, The Sex Pistols, Depeche Mode, The Kinks and Sade. Some of the best moments in Absolute Beginners are the standalone tracks that could be lifted straight out of the film and placed on MTV. The two best examples are Ray Davies’s ‘Quiet Life’ and David Bowie’s ‘That’s Motivation’, the latter of which has Bowie tap dancing around a giant typewriter.

The film’s lack of focus is its downfall. When Colin gets caught up in the Notting Hill race riots in the final third of the film, he takes a wrong turn to avoid danger and ends up in a neo-Nazi war rally. This is a scene that creates some really powerful imagery but the themes had been underplayed in the build up, making its inclusion neither relevant nor integral to the plot. Indeed, the threat of violence is imminent all around the city without ever feeling anything more than a light touch suggestion. Yes, it’s a musical, but I can’t help think that if they’d just cut a couple of needless scenes earlier in the film there could have been a better balance struck between the romantic side and the social commentary. It is hard to believe that the die-hard fans of the book don’t feel the same way.

It was a troubled film to develop and the brilliant 53-minute documentary now included in the Blu-ray release is enough justification to pick up a copy. It’s also a curiosity for fans of any of the stars in this bizarrely-assembled cast. It is, however, not a good piece of cinema.

[1] Absolute Beginners took £1.8m at the box office in the UK and $930k in the USA against a budget of £8.4m.

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