In the ’70s and ’80s, Julien Temple was well-known for his work in the music video industry, directing some of the most popular acts at the time, including Culture Club, Judas Priest, The Kinks, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and more. He had also dabbled in documentary work, most notably The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle about The Sex Pistols, as well as other films. But by 1986, Temple moved on to revive the musical format with a modern twist, directing one of the most unusual films with an impressively notably cast, Absolute Beginners.
Based on the same-titled 1958 novel by Colin MacInnes, the second book in his ‘London Trilogy,’ the film is an interesting if sometimes confused blend of the past and present and an ode to the city that would a decade later be the epicenter of fashion, music, and culture. The story follows the blossoming careers of teenagers Colin (Eddie O’Connell) and ‘Crepe’ Suzette (Patsy Kensit) as they struggle with their relationship while trying to escape working-class drudgery..
The cast is one that could be considered all-star; David Bowie plays an American businessman with the hokiest accent you’ve ever heard, Ray Davies plays Colin’s father (with the infamous Mandy Rice Davies as his mother–no relation), and Sade is a nightclub singer. The soundtrack also includes contributions by other notable artists such as The Style Council and Jerry Dammers (of The Specials). But despite the star-power behind the film, it remains to this day little more than a cult film.
The majority of the film follows Colin as he attempts to woo his love, Suzette, who had suddenly become a modeling icon and decided that he wasn’t going to hold her back from success. Along the way he finds himself involved with Vendice Partners (Bowie), who promises to take Colin’s photography skills to the top. Colin sells out in the hopes that his newfound wealth and success will win back the money-hungry Suzette. Of course, as expected, both Colin and Suzette soon realize that “selling out” doesn’t lead to happiness.
The whole film is somewhat confused and hard to follow at times, and struggles with being too artsy for its own good. Despite the jazzy music, references to teddy boys, and general wardrobe, you never truly feel that the movie is representing the pre-rock-’n’-roll era. You also never really believe that London is represented; rather it resembles a neon-colored New York-Vegas hybrid with English accents. It just feels like one long, typical ’80s music video with a hint of a Broadway and a dash of Ken Russell’s Tommy. The best parts of the film are certainly the individual songs which could easily be their own music videos; it is the dialog in between that often leaves a lot to be desired. Admittedly my favorite scene is the cheesy, but lyrically amusing “Quiet Life” sequence, as performed by Ray Davies (not that anyone should be surprised).
The film is certainly worth watching for the cast and the soundtrack is a must. However, the most important aspects of the film are the social themes that often get overshadowed by the ridiculousness of the ‘big name’ scenes. The film touches on everything from class warfare, race relations, youth culture, sexuality, nationalism, post-war affluence, and the rise of consumer culture. One particularly poignant scene portrays the race riots of the Notting Hill area, which did occur in 1958. Unfortunately, the film does a poor job building up any tension leading to this part of the film, with only a few hints early on that something will happen with little explanation as to why they happened and is rather disconnected to Colin’s own storyline as the protagonist other than he just somehow ends up in the middle of it all. That being said, it’s still worth watching for a bit of historical education and there are subtle correlations that the viewer can make tying the experiences of post-war working-class whites to non-white Britons, which would be a big influence in the rise of British rock music in the ’60s.
Overall, the film is not a classic nor is it guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser. It’s a very niche work that appeals to fans of period pieces, the select music artists who appeared in or contributed to the film, and/or simply Julien Temple’s career (which is otherwise quite exemplary). Much like marmite, you’ll either love it or hate it.