The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Film Features

Bowiefest Preview: Absolute Beginners Revisited
Anthony Nield , August 29th, 2012 04:56

This weekend London's ICA is hosting a retrospective of David Bowie the movie and TV star. Anthony Nield buys a bargain bin US import DVD to take another look at the Dame's 1986 folly, directed by Julien Temple

"Now, my kids will watch anything, but they couldn't watch this. Nor could their friends. I don't think I've ever seen worse acting in a major British film... That song, in my opinion, was the only good feature of the whole film... Amateurland.

There was nothing in the picture to which you could attach hope. You couldn't say, 'Yes, it's terrible, but it has good music', or 'Yes, but it's got wonderful performances', or 'Yes, but you really care about the characters', or 'Yes, but there's some great dance numbers'. The music, the performances, the characters and the dance numbers added up to one of the least attractive films of the decade."

Not a critic, but the founder of the company that helped finance it. Jake Eberts wasn't a fan of Absolute Beginners and made the fact abundantly clear in his 1990 memoir, My Indecision Is Final. The above quotes all fall within the space of three pages, but then he had every right to feel aggrieved. This was one of the pictures which ultimately led to his resignation and to his company, Goldcrest Films, being sold on at a loss of some £34 million. Absolute Beginners had gone massively over budget and performed terribly at the box office. So too had another of Eberts' pictures, the Al Pacino-starring American War of Independence epic Revolution. A third, The Mission with Robert De Niro, at least found critical favour and picked up the Palme d'Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, but its modest success was hardly enough to spare the blushes of the other two movies. Pacino wouldn't appear onscreen for another four years after Revolution, while Absolute Beginners' director Julien Temple retreated to the safer environs of the US and Neil Young music videos. Their efforts have been battling it out ever since for the bragging rights to the title of British cinema's most notorious flop.

Revolution was granted a re-think earlier this year. The BFI put out a bells and whistles Dual Format Edition in June to a considerably warmer critical response than the film had received during the Christmas of 1985. The praise may not have been unanimous, but at least it was understanding. Sympathy had replaced scorn and now, at worst, Revolution was deemed an admirable failure. Flawed, certainly, but also impressively bloody-minded in its ambition. How can you not appreciate a British historical epic set during the American Revolutionary War that opted to shoot exclusively in Norfolk, Devon and Cambridgeshire - and got away with it? Meanwhile, Absolute Beginners languishes on a shelf somewhere, blowing off the dust only occasionally for one of those rare television screenings in the early hours. (The last came on a cold Thursday night in early 2008 on BBC4. Before that you need to go back to 1996.) There's never been a British DVD release, let alone a Blu-ray, and as such little opportunity for a proper reappraisal. This weekend brings a welcome chance, however, thanks to Bowiefest at the ICA and a one-off appearance on the big screen.

Absolute Beginners deserves big. This was moviemaking on a grand scale, reconstructing the London of the late fifties through massive sets and choreographed extras. Its tale of teenagers and racial tensions was told - unlike the British cinema of the period it sought to recreate - in full colour and Super Techniscope widescreen. Social realism back then meant black and white. Teen images too were almost strictly monochromatic: the juvenile delinquents of Cosh Boy (subject to the UK's first X certificate) and Beat Girl; the audience members on Jack Good's pioneering pop music shows Six-Five Special and Oh Boy!; the Teds as captured by local news teams or the 16mm cameras of the Free Cinema movement. Colour was reserved for Hammer horror and visiting movie stars (as when Marilyn Monroe popped over to Pinewood for The Prince And The Showgirl). And yet here was Soho circa 1958 in all of its garish delight.

More specifically, this was Colin MacInnes' Soho. Absolute Beginners, the novel, was first published in 1958, steadily moving from cult to classic during the intervening years. Despite being written by a 44-year-old who'd previously been employed by the BBC, it nevertheless managed to capture something of that very specific period in history. The rise of the teenager as charted by TV pop shows and lurid big screen warnings against delinquency was understandably neutered: too clean-cut or too cartoonish. The written word, however, allowed MacInnes the freedom to chronicle the reality. This was the true face of the capital - pimps, pornographers, pederasts, users, abusers, gays, lesbians, the multicultural and the subcultural - as seen through the eyes (and lens) of a nameless 18-year-old photographer. He brought out the journalistic curiosity in MacInnes, at once cynical and enthused, not to mention his way with words. The lingo (all "concrete-kissers" and "H-category product") and little turns of phrase ("dressed up in casuals that cost far more than usuals") are now perfectly evocative of that bygone age.

It's this documentary quality which gives the novel its primary appeal, and also explains why it has since become something of a style bible to aspiring mod revivalists and the like. (Paul Weller's long been a vocal fan with The Jam scoring a top ten hit by the name of 'Absolute Beginners' in 1981.) As a piece of narrative, though, it's a little slim. There are hints of romance, a bit of heartbreak and a finale set among the Notting Hill race riots, but these were mere diversions. It was MacInnes' ability to put London on the page that mattered, to guide us through its streets and characters, to situate us directly in the centre of its melting pot. If you were to adapt Absolute Beginners into a movie then those are the elements you would focus on. This realism demands a semi-documentary approach, with non-professional actors and a storyline consisting of deftly interwoven vignettes, because it's the real eye-opener and hook.

Temple, on the other hand, decided that a musical would be the better option. In some respects his reasoning makes sense. After all, how better to paper over the flimsiness of the storyline than with a series of lavishly mounted production numbers? And yet this was a high risk approach, especially in 1986. The musical had been dead for years, a series of big budget disasters in the late sixties having effectively killed it off for good. Those rare successes that followed, cult or otherwise, were a different breed; The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Ken Russell's Tommy bear little resemblance to Oliver! or The Sound Of Music. Attempts were made during the eighties to revive the brand but all that resulted were a series of failures, alternately notorious and toxic: Robert Altman's Popeye, John Huston's Annie, Francis Ford Coppola's One From The Heart, the US remake of Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven, Olivia Newton-John on roller skates in Xanadu. The musical had moved on and, by the time of Absolute Beginners commencing filming, that meant Flashdance, Footloose and Purple Rain. These were relatively low-budget, low-risk enterprises with best-selling soundtracks in tow. The kids didn't want show tunes, they wanted Giorgio Moroder, Kenny Loggins and Prince.

And this was kind of what they got with Absolute Beginners. Temple was keen to cover all angles and so found himself with a musical that looked as though it had been produced during the fifties (big sets, plenty of performers) but with choreography from The Rocky Horror Picture Show's David Toguri and tunes from the past three decades of British musical talent. Among the composers and performers were Jerry Dammers, Nick Lowe, Sade, The Style Council, Working Week, Ray Davies, Tenpole Tudor, Smiley Culture, Eighth Wonder (with Patsy Kensit) and, of course, David Bowie, all with new material. For a bit of authentic US jazz flavour Slim Gaillard put in an appearance, while Gil Evans was brought in to oversee the whole affair and compose the incidental score. You may find fault with the quality in places, but there's no doubting just how eclectic it is. Indeed, was there ever a stranger sight in British cinema during the eighties than Smiley Culture toasting atop Miles Davis' 'So What' in the aftermath of a race riot?

Temple had previous experience with a number of his performers. He'd done the 'Blue Jean' music video for David Bowie, 'Smooth Operator' for Sade, 'Venceremos' for Working Week and 'Come Dancing' with The Kinks. Tudor, meanwhile, had provided musical turns in both The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle and the little-seen Punk Can Take It. Such experience bleeds into Absolute Beginners to the point where it can, at times, resemble a series of pop promos. Davies' contribution, for example, is pretty much entirely self-contained: he sings 'Quiet Life' within a Frank Tashlin-inspired set piece, which is nice enough whilst it lasts, but it also reduces one of the novel's key characters (the photographer's dad) to little more than a glorified cameo. He's introduced, he does his ditty, he slips away. The argument could be made that there's some deft narrative shorthand at work here - the songs and the characters are inseparable and, as such, integral to the storytelling - and yet it also shows up the overall lack of cohesion. Great in isolation (the 'Quiet Life' sequence also doubled as its music video when released as a single), less so when it comes to forming a fully fledged feature.

Some of the blame can be put down to Temple's inexperience (even The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle plays out like a series of barely connected episodes), though spare a thought too for the five credited writers. The initial idea to adapt MacInnes for the big screen was shared between Temple, his occasional producer Michael Hamlyn (the pair had recently worked together on the ABC concert film/espionage thriller Mantrap) and the then-editor of Time Out's film section, Don MacPherson. MacPherson drew up the first script, but this wasn't much liked and so the task was given to Richard Burridge, the man who, incidentally, had just penned Mantrap. At this point there was also involvement from the National Film Development Fund, which meant a supervisor being on board in the form of Andrea Schiff, though this did ultimately produce a shooting script. Budgetary and scheduling pressures during production then prompted a few torn out pages plus the arrival of former Hammer horror scribe Christopher Wicking to perform a salvage job. At some point another of Temple's associates Terry Johnson, who'd scripted Jazzin' For Blue Jean, provided additional dialogue, plus acknowledgement should be made to those US test audiences who managed to make it through the entire picture and offer up their own suggestions. If the end result comes across as a bit of a mess, is it really all that surprising?

With so many names attached it's hard to know where to the point the finger when it comes to Absolute Beginners' fatal mistake. Eager to make MacInnes more palatable for a general audience, the film accentuates the relationship between the photographer (now named Colin, after the author of course) and his "spade-crazy" ex-girlfriend Crepe Suzette, though the miscegenation angle is massively played down. There's nothing wrong with this decision in itself, but when you cast Eddie O'Connell and Patsy Kensit in the roles you're asking for trouble. They both look the part, certainly, with Kensit coming across like a British Bardot and O'Connell having the perfect cheekbones. In fact, Absolute Beginners has this wonderful freeze frame quality in which you could pause on any moment and be massively impressed. Press play, however, and you're faced with the void these two non-performances provide. Kensit emerged unscathed - the resilience of a former child star never to be underestimated - managing a brief Pet Shop Boys-endorsed pop career, a supporting turn in Lethal Weapon 2 and plenty of tabloid interest over the next few years. O'Connell fared less well and managed just a few small roles in the likes of The Bill and Birds Of A Feather.

It's easy to be driven to distraction by the pair, to the point where Absolute Beginners' other pleasures fade into the distance. You could be forgiven for ignoring another of Bowie's determinedly oddball turns or the wonderful little psycho essayed by Graham Fletcher-Cook. There's also something really quite pleasing in the decision to cast Lionel Blair as a boy-hungry impresario, even if he does play it for laughs. Indeed, it's the audacity of the entire venture which always gets underestimated as the attention tends to fall on the central miscasting. Here was a British film that tried to be as big as the competition and do its own thing. There are so many idiosyncratic touches that it's hard to know exactly who this was all made for, but that's not to say that we can't appreciate the ambition, the determination and the sheer bloody-mindedness behind them. Absolute Beginners ultimately deserves its label as a failure - too much mess, too many poor decisions - and yet I cannot help being incredibly fond of it.

Bowiefest runs from August 31 to September 2 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, with Absolute Beginners screening on Sunday. More information about the whole event can be found here.