BR: Absolute Beginners (1986)

January 15, 2016 | By

AbsoluteBeginners_BR Film: Weak

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All Released:  June 9, 2015

Genre:  Musical

Synopsis: Cresting into young adulthood, a teen experiences a whirlwind of emotions when he loses his girl, becomes a feted teen photographer, and sees his working class neighbourhood turned topsy-turvy during race riots in jazzy London, circa 1958. Based on the novel by Colin McInnes.

Special Features:  Isolated Mono Music Track / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.  



Based on the 1959 novel by Colin McInnes, Absolute Beginners ostensibly recounts the singular summer of a young adult as he graduates from amateur shutterbug to teen insider, snapping sharp and candid shots of the emerging teen culture as it evolved into a potent consumer base with its own nascent groups of Mods and Teddy Boys, and jazz fans who hold anything by modernist jazz performers like Miles Davis as sublimely Holy (as they should).

McInnes’ novel formed part of a London Trilogy, with AB sandwiched between City of Spades (1958) and Mr. Love and Justice (1960), and its colourful prose featured vivid slang both vintage and poetic which gave the story of its unnamed hero a kind of Technicolor glow. The hero, rebranded Colin in the film adaptation, still has longings for girlfriend Crepe Suzette, a gold-digging hottie who marries a pompous fashion designer. Their worlds occasionally clash in social gatherings, but in the film’s finale, the screen couple are able to enjoy a relationship reset after escaping a combustible fracas inspired by the 1958 Nottinghill race riots in which gangs of white and black youths battled for several days before police bothered to intervene.

MacInnes’ vivid world deals with slices of hip teen culture, cliques, yearnings, and music – elements that allow any filmmaker to explore a wild range of visual and musical styles to integrate, and a choice of language to evoke or hint at a fashionable bygone era.

So how did a lucrative property emerge as a critical and financial flop, and a prominent culprit in the destruction of its once-heralded studio?

The shot screenplay feels like severely overworked compromise after a succession of writers including Don MacPherson (The Gunman), Terry Johnson (Insignificance), and horror veteran Christopher Wicking (Scream and Scream Again, Demons of the MindTo the Devil a Daughter) took presumably separate cracks at hammering out MacInnes’ story into a narrative that for whatever reason had to be a musical.

Former music documentarian and music video director Julien Temple made his feature film debut with AB, and his approach in visual verve – long takes, expansive widescreen cinematography, and blazing oversaturated colours – gives the impression of an homage to West Side Story (1961), as filtered and distilled into jazz-pop Britain circa 1958 with dollops of eighties colour gels, costumes, and hybrid hairstyles.

What West Side had (besides length and more dramatically integral songs) was also a structure that allowed time for the introduction and growth of characters, whereas AB, perhaps because of Temple’s skill with music videos, structured the film like a series of vignettes tethered by almost subliminal dialogue exchanges and brief dramatic flashes.

Colin and Suzette do talk and strut across dance floors, apartment living rooms, and pubs now and then, but they’re often leaders of separate storylines, with Suzette more often than not gone from the film for long periods. The pair are introduced as a couple, but in a bizarre coffee shop sequence, she croons her gold-digging desires to Colin, which Temple covers in long takes. After that, she gets hitched to a designer (Edward Fox doing another snotty English elite) and in brief later scenes, starts to feel a bit little of regret in not having wed nice guy Colin.

Suzette’s goodbye is also a mediocre song that tries to evoke a bit of jazz with contemporary pop underpinnings, while iconic Miles Davis arranger / orchestrator Gil Evans also handles a few original cues to bridge and temper the film’s increasingly awkward shift from fluffy albeit satirical musical to a fleeting drama that climaxes with a race riot. The violence ranges from a glimpse at realism where knives are drawn and any slashing happens without redness, but there’s also a rumble between black & white gangs choreographed like an homage to Wide Side.

Aspects of the riot are pitched as drama – the Teds (led by sneering Bruce Payne) go on a burning rampage, sanctioned by their neo-Nazi Fuhrer (Steven Berkoff) – but there are odd MGM-styled sequences that precede the darker toned finale, like The Kinks’ Ray Davies (playing Colin’s dad) singing a sleepy tune as Temple’s camera cranes up, down, and around the rooms of a giant cutaway house; and David Bowie dancing on a giant typewriter and atop a huge globe.

Bowie’s involvement may stem from Temple having directed a video for the artist (“Blue Jeans”), and while the title song smashes together eighties pop-rock with slight echoes of early sixties rockabilly, it’s not a particularly memorable tune, droning on especially during the film’s End Credits. Bowie’s presence as a slick n’ sleazy, highly commercial (American) producer does give the film a rare burst of energy, but he’s similarly given short bursts of dialogue that feel more perfunctory than witty.

Sade Adu, one of Britain’s top jazz-pop artists at the time, received a lot of attention for her first (and last) film role, but her song (“Killer Blow”) is quickly pushed into the background as Colin enters and soon leaves the pub where she performs, banishing the songstress entirely from the narrative. The Style Council’s “Have You Ever Had It Blue?” also pops up in a fleeting meditative moment with Colin perched by the river, but a brief follow-up section where actor O’Connell sings on a bridge feels clipped, as though that moment proved weak in test screenings, resulting in a truncated edit and forced scene transition.

Suzette’s intro scene was supposedly designed to showcase Kensit’s own dancing and singing skills while being irreverently funny and transforming her character of a backroom seamstress into a chic hat designer and future wife for designer Henley (Fox), but it’s strained, unfunny, and ultimately suffers from the chief problem that transforms this bold feature-length attempt at pop culture satire and homage into a dud: there is no genuine character development in dialogue, physical movement, or song.

Colin and Suzette remain cardboard figures who drift, veer, and scurry through mostly separate scenes, whispering minimal dialogue that’s been severely pruned to make room for music – either scored montages or actual songs. Colin has a father and a loutish brother, but they appear collectively in one scene that may well have been longer or tied to other scenes shorn from the narrative. That scene’s also got an especially lazy continuity issue that hints at a production under duress, where Temple was tasked with delivering a film the studio hoped would save its life: the father enters the darkroom / shed while Colin is very clearly in the midst of developing a photograph, yet the scene goes on as though a streak of light from the open door offers no harm; when Colin’s idiot brother leaves, he opens the door to shine light into the room, but this time it damages the photos and irritates Colin.

AB was not Goldcrest’s costliest film, but it was part of a several ill-designed productions that failed to pull it from the brink of disaster, leading to the studio’s shuttering – not unlike Hammer – for long patches, with the odd film production popping up every 6 or so years.

While not a failure in production values – Temple makes great use of a full-size London set in an elaborate opening sequence in which Colin’s tracked in long, uninterrupted Steadicam movements – it’s a bit of a creative dud, mostly because the soul of MacInnes’ novel was so severely diluted into a commercial concept that pushed sound and images to the front, and almost sublimated the two characters upon which everything revolves.

It’s a shame, because much of the casting is inspired, especially Edward Tudor-Pole as a greasy, snarly Ted thug; and bit roles for Mandy Rice-Davies (known for her association with Christine Keeler in the Profumo affair); and Robbie Coltrane as an Italian shop owner named Mario).

American Anita Morrie (Ruthless People) is appropriately theatrical if not a bit grating as gossip columnist Dido, and Kensit – perhaps the biggest recipient of critical derision after Temple – does the best she can with her severely underwritten role. Temple went for a mythic story and generic homage, but the film simply has no soul.

AB may have its admirers, and there’s a fair argument to be made in regarding Temple as a precursor to Baz Luhrmann’s whirlwind narrative style, but the film’s virtual sterility serves as a warning sign on how to never treat MacInnes’ novels for the big screen.

MGM’s 2003 DVD contained both widescreen and full-frame versions, and a production stills gallery featuring 50 images that remains exclusive to this release. Temple also directed a separate B&W music video of the title track with Bowie walking around London, occasionally peering at some colour extracts of the film (cigarette vending machine, building windows, broken glass panes, etc.) before film footage is intercut with Bowie following a busty zebrawoman – a fluffy narrative mush typical of the era designed to tie together soundtrack album + lead artist + movie.

While video remains exclusive to a 2002 2-disc collection David Bowie: Best of Bowie from Parlophone, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a mono music track containing both songs and score cues. The score track is clean, but lacks the warm stereo range of the very bass-friendly 2.0 stereo mix. The new 5.1 mix is fine, though, spreading out the stereo image to fill out the room.

The MGM-sourced HD transfer comes from an excellent print with radiant colours, and the fine details also reveal the occasional focus puller error that affects Kensit’s goodbye to Colin song (with the rear foliage of the pub being sharper than Kensit). One oddity within MGM’s transfer is the End Credits, which are re-framed as non-anamorphic widescreen instead of filling out the full screen as the rest of the film. (The switch begins when the ring Colin tosses out the window lands in a pool of water.)

TT’s Blu adds another alternative source for the music (and possibly some extra Gil Evans cues), as the soundtrack album reportedly exists in three different (and frustrating) incarnations: the shorter LP, the longer CD, and the longer cassette set (which was typical of the era when labels preferred to keep CD lengths closer to 70 mins. during the format’s early years).

Evans’s rare forays into film scoring include The Whistle (1968) and Absolute Beginners  (1986), and the TV production The Sea is Your Future (1971).

Temple’s career includes several several stellar music videos for a variety of artists (David Bowie, The Kinks, Janet Jackson, Van Halen, Whitney Houstin, and Blur, to name a few), the remarkable Rolling Stones IMAX concert film At the Max (1991), and a variety of critically acclaimed documentaries, including The Filth and the Fury (2000), Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (2007), and Requiem for Detroit? (2010).    



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan  

External References:

Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography  


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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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