Absolute Beginners is a good takeoff film to compare with the current crop of movie musicals. Julien Temple's retro blast from London's 1958 teen scene attracted critical attention but nowhere near the public it deserved; even though Orion's American release included 70mm prints in some situations, the movie began as and has remained a cult item.
Fans have been wailing about the lack of a letterboxed version of Absolute Beginners in any format, and now on DVD they finally have it. This visually-active show is an entirely different proposition in Panavision widescreen.
David Bowie always got top billing over here, but the film really belongs to Eddie O'Connell and Patsy Kensit as the two hip lovebirds in the late 50's teen scene on the London streets. This very show-offy picture starts with a trucking shot to match or outdo anything in an Ophuls or Welles film; and every scene has its visual gimmick, so nothing is ever allowed to slow down.
American kids need a guidebook, or a history lesson to find out what Absolute Beginners is all about. The Rock'n Roll wave hit England every bit as hard as it did the States, and by 1958 or so, every corner of the media and commercial world was angling to get its piece of the pie. Drippy novelty singers were promoted as new pop stars, and agents, producers and variety shows were trying to find ways to cram the newfound rock 'fad' into marketable formulas.
Colin MacInnes' novel stressed the fact that the 'youth culture' that was emerging from the new prosperity wasn't just rock'n roll, and there's actually not a lot of period rock in the picture. His cipher character Colin is into jazz & photography. He recognizes that even in his rather earthy corner of London with its con artists, prostitutes and other vices, there's something happening that's never happened before, and the established hucksters and promoters are just ruining it for everyone.
That's sort of what Absolute Beginners is about, but not really. The plot chronicles Colin and Suzette's breakup and corruption by the 'enemy' until they get back together again. Suzette becomes the trophy wife of fey fashion king James Fox, who keeps her busy with La Dolce Vita -ish parties among the soulless rich. Colin also mingles with his cohorts who've turned to pimping and other crimes to make ends meet. At home, his foolish father turns a blind eye to his mother's philandering. And he watches helplessly while Teddy boys - reactionary thugs in Edwardian clothes - harass the non-whites in the neighborhood. The thuggery is initiated by a Real Estate developer, but when Neo-Nazis seize the opportunity, the streets erupt in violence.
Along the way there's literally dozens of plot sideshows, from Colin's Fellini-esque Lesbian neighbors, to the mindless creation of a 'teen scream' star called Baby Boom. Val Guest and Wolf Mankowitz's Expresso Bongo is a minor masterpiece about the same teen phenomenon in London, but Absolute Beginners blows it all up into a fantasmagorical musical apocalypse. This picture could easily go by the title Expresso Bongo Satyricon.
The film is rather disorganized, and its central romance more than a little trite, but where Absolute Beginners gets high marks is its conception as a visual musical. There's more happening here visually than in ten MGM musicals, which the frequent musical numbers constantly evoke. Contrary to the buzz on Absolute Beginners, it isn't cut like a music video, which in 1986 was the hot ticket. With the material between the music already moving at a fast clip, when the actual songs start, the screen goes nuts with clever choreography and camerawork. Add to that a constantly changing color palate, and you have a world every bit as artificial and exciting as a Minelli musical.
The colorful characters of the original novel become the strange denizens of an Oz- like dream world, complete with weird names and occupations. There's even one pal of Colin's named Wizard. The streets hum with a distinctive identity - like the world of Damon Runyon. The Mods and the Teds face off nightly. In the jazz clubs, Mr. Cool blows a mean trumpet, and Suzette knows how to turn a dull fashion show into a swingin' scene. The only judgment delivered is against the users and opportunists who feed off the fads. Colin documents the crazies on the street, but throws a fit when a sarcastic TV host chooses to make fun of them.
The film becomes a thematic mishmosh when real racial hatred enters the picture. The last half hour is a musical riot, where the violence is choreographed with dancers turning into fighters, and it's all a bit too much.
There are some great highlights on the way, however, with Suzette's freak-out at the fashion show, and her kissoff torch number delivered to an aghast Colin. Director Temple brings in a Jerry Lewis / Frank Tashlin exploded house set, to represent Colin's family's home, where Ray Davies sings about a paterfamilias in denial. Sade makes a welcome appearance near the end to belt out one of her stylized numbers. David Bowie has one grossly overproduced number, dancing on a typewriter like Busby Berkeley. It's good but it doesn't have quite the socko impact it's aiming for.
The dancing and camerawork are so thoroughly integrated, that we don't get the feeling that the film really stops for the songs. The best thing that can be said about Temple's camera and cutting is that he does let the performers do most of the performing, which definitely goes against currrent trends in musicals. 1 Those looking for simplicity or elegance will probably find Absolute Beginners one colossal headache, but fans of the new musical trends may rediscover a masterpiece.
MGM's DVD of Absolute Beginners is a stunner, with a bright & snappy enhanced picture that faithfully displays the show in all its prime colors. The movie begins and ends with solid fields of red, and for the first time on video, they don't turn into a buzzy red mess. There are two separate encodings on a flipper disc, but I doubt the flat version was necessary in this case. The stereo surround Dolby Digital track lets the music belt out ... this is a good-sounding track.
Absolute Beginners would have been a great title for extras, as the movie and its subject will be alien to 99% of American viewers, but there are no docus or interviews or commentaries. It would be nice to know if the street musicians under the music promoter's window sound like a real 'skiffle' group, for instance, or to get a full historical rundown on what's behind the Mods, Rockers and Teddy Boys.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Absolute Beginners rates:
1. This will close a few
ears to Savant's opinions, but I have almost zero use for the enormously popular musicals
Moulin Rouge and Chicago, directors' movies that don't allow performers to really
perform. The musical numbers are created almost entirely by the
director's visual concepts and constantly cutting cameras. The performers in these films may be
talented, they might be able to dance, etc, but since we never see more than 2 or three seconds of
a performance without another relentless cut, we can't tell. Absolute Beginners does have
fast cutting, and it is the showcase of a director who favors his sets and designs as much as he
does the actors, but when the musical numbers get going, big pieces of performance - the singing
and dancing, are left intact.