I don't normally do reviews here outside of my long neglected Discount Bin Film Club, but I recently got a little blast from the past on Turner Classic Movies "Second Look" series, and decided to post my thoughts.
I'm a child of the 1980s, which was an age of conformity, rebellion, and conformity through rebellion, and rebellion through conformity, and one film attempted to capture it all by making a musical set in the 1950s that was about the 1980s and it was called Absolute Beginners.
The movie, based on the novel by Colin MacInnes, follows a freelance photographer during his last summer as a teenager in London in 1958.
The photographer, named Colin (Eddie O'Connell) in the movie but nameless in the novel, is in love with a gal with the nickname of Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit). Suzette is an ambitious wannabe fashion designer who leaves her true love behind to enter a phoney marriage of convenience with a gay fashion designer named Henley of Mayfair (James Fox). Henley needs a wife to avoid Britain's draconian anti-gay laws and attitudes which could ruin him, but he more urgently needs her ideas and talent to tap into the burgeoning youth market, on the flip side Suzette needs him to break into the business.
Colin tries to win back Suzette by "selling out" first in the form of working an oily and probably pedophiliac pop-star manager-promoter named Harry Charms, a gossip columnist named Dido Lament, and an advertising kingpin named Vendice Partners played by rock legend David Bowie.
Both find themselves terribly unhappy in their new lives and find themselves breaking free from the paths set by the older generation and start their adult lives on their own terms.
Meanwhile, the long hot summer brings simmering racial tensions to the boil, as those who felt left out of the economic growth try to blame others based on their race. Unscrupulous property developers start hiring thuggish Teddy Boys to drive out the resident's of Colin's neighbourhood, but they lose control of their thugs and everything explodes in a massive deadly riot at the film's climax.
All of this reflecting attitudes found in all levels of UK society at the time.
The 1950s were a little more jarring for the UK than the USA. Nine years of post-WW2 rationing, cripplingly high taxes, economic stagnation, and general social malaise had only ended in 1954 unleashing a booming economy and an exploding youth culture where one had not existed before. However, the Caribbean immigrants and European refugees who were brought in to help with war time and post-war labour shortages.
The 1980s in the UK were similar but on a less dramatic scale. Youth culture in Britain had stagnated in the 1970s because of a combination of the over-indulgence of the 1960s generation, and the nationalization of industries putting the country in a chronic recession.
These conditions led to the arrival of punk rock and new wave pop music, a massive recovery in the economy, and an stern authority figure to rebel against in the form of Margaret Thatcher.
The filmmakers no doubt thought the similarities in the zeitgeist meant that it was the right time to bring Absolute Beginners to the big screen.
Now like most people I didn't see the movie when it came out in theatres. In fact, it's troubled production, and its failure at the box office helped sink co-producer Goldcrest Films after years of box office success and critical acclaim. I first saw it on a rather grainy pirated pay-tv signal in 1988, then I read about its troubled production in a book about the rise and fall of Goldcrest Films.
Three production companies pitched in to make the film, but each producer had a different vision of how the film should be made and what the film should be, with director Julian Temple stuck in the middle. Money troubles plagued the production, often causing it to shut down for days or weeks at a time, sometimes in the middle of making a scene.
And you can see all that in the finished film.
The film has ambitious ideas and themes, but it lacks the cohesion to present those ideas and themes in a coherent way. The film is being pulled in different directions. Should it be a glossy and glamorous fantasy like the MGM musicals of the 1950s setting, or should it be gritty and political more in tune with the vibe of the time it was made? Should it be nostalgic for the 1950s, or should it make a statement about the 1980s?
It looks like they couldn't quite decide. Creating jarring lurches in tone and style that might have been made smoother had there been a singular vision behind the film.
Also you get the sense that someone was trying to cram as much music as possible into the movie. Sometimes the songs expand on the story and the characters, but a lot of the time they're just there for the sole purpose of being there and the editing just plops them in there with little or not transition or introduction.
It also hurts the storytelling. We are introduced to characters and story-lines that seem interesting, only to have the song end and we never see them again. The most telling is the appearance of Kinks lead singer Ray Davies in the role of Colin's downtrodden dad. He's stuck in a loveless marriage with an unfaithful wife, working on detailed personal history of his family and his community because it helps him remember happier times. All of this is introduced in his number "The Quiet Life" where he expresses, amidst the camp antics of his wife, her paramours, and his boorish stepson, that, despite what everyone thinks, he does know how pathetic his life is, but doesn't dare challenge the status quo because he's afraid of the unknown that change will bring.
He's an interesting character, obviously scarred by his wartime experiences and his miserable family life, but as soon as his song ends, he's gone, never to be seen or even referred to again. You get the sense that he was originally intended to be a much larger figure, as he was in the original novel, but was mostly cut out during the development process.
However, it's not all doom and gloom with this film.
It's a strangely compelling and yet melancholy experience, keeping your attention, which makes the missed narrative opportunities and tonal lurches more stinging because you want more story over songs. The pacing is quick, with very few slow patches, and the cast is charming with an overall good chemistry between them, especially the leads.
There are also these clever little touches and visual gags included in the films. Like how almost every building in Colin's neighbourhood of Napoli in Notting Hill have little plaques explaining how they were once important landmarks in the history of British culture, but are now semi-bombed out slums. There are also character cues, like how Colin goes from being a spontaneous chronicler of his neighbourhood and its people when he's unknown, to trying to impose himself on his subjects by forcing poses on them, just like how his new patrons try to use his talent to their ends.
I think you could classify Absolute Beginners as a noble failure and an 80s curiosity worth investigating.