By the 1980s British cinema was dying. Long the country known for prestige pictures like Gandhi and Chariots of Fire (put out by the same studio that put out this film, Goldcrest), the British film industry was seen as passe and dull. Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners was meant to be a much needed shot in the arm for Goldcrest and Britain, emphasizing that, like the late-1950s landscape within Temple’s film, British cinema could be “England all right, but very un-English.” Now hosting its own cult status, Twilight Time’s beautiful Blu-ray allows others to watch the film that ended up sinking British cinema before being embraced like a phoenix from the ashes.
In 1958 London, Colin (Eddie O’Connell) is a photographer trying to find a way to make his relationship with Suzette (Patsy Kensit) work. Unfortunately, Suzette has her own dreams, forcing the two lovers apart. However, their teenage status leads to various exploitation from marketers, all the while London suffers from a changing cultural landscape.
Much like the division between “mods” and “Trads” or blacks and whites, Absolute Beginners is a bit of an amalgam of old and new styles of musical. Much like musicals of the 1970s, Grease in particular, there’s an idealized version of the 1950s/1960s with obvious adult-aged kids playing teenagers. Concurrently, Temple, a music video director who’d worked with the Sex Pistols and Janet Jackson, goes further back, to the musicals of the 1960s and 1950s themselves.
Everyone moves as if they’re actively stopping themselves from breaking into dance. When two characters fight, it’s choreographed like something out of West Side Story. When Colin’s father sings about his house, used as a brother, we see the house in cross-section like a Busby Berkeley musical. While creating a heavily staged atmosphere, Temple uses old Hollywood as a means of showing its inherent differences to the British style, as well as the blend of fantasy and reality that Colin and Suzette tip-toe around.
Using the surreal fantasy of Old Hollywood, Temple explores the cynical means of exploiting teenagers within the post-war boom. After finally achieving restoration, Colin and his band of quippy named teens have aimless professions that, in the words of Suzette, will allow them to “have it all.” The post-war boom did bring the concept of the “teenager” as a consumer to the fore, and while the movie never goes as bleakly as it should with the concept, the idea of exploiting teens for consumption leads to some fun moments with David Bowie’s generically (and appropriately) named Vendice Partners. Bowie doesn’t have much to do. He sings the title song, which isn’t Bowie at his best. His true moment to shine is during his sales pitch to Colin, a song called “That’s Motivation.” With astounding production design from John Beard, Bowie sells Colin by dancing on massive typewriters, culminating in a spin on a globe, a sign of teenagerdom’s soon-to-be global impact.
Speaking of Beard’s production design, he does a brilliant job of emphasizing the “light and magic in the streets” that is 1958 London. Predominately shot on massive soundstages, the clustered buildings that lead to various twisting avenues gives us a town filled with possibilities, that ultimately turns in on itself. And don’t presume this is a London filled with crumpets and tea-time. As Colin takes late-night strolls through the streets, he runs into a host of colorful and amoral characters, with people hocking their wears, and their bodies (“Anyone want a whore?”). People are breathing sights of relief with the end of the war, but the impending Cold War looms large, and people are a bit too content indulging in their vices.
Out of the entire cast, this was Patsy Kensit’s breakthrough performance and she’s good as Suzette (her full name is Crepe Suzette, for the record). Unfortunately, the character from the book, a far more disturbed character, turns into a poor young girl torn between two men. When Kensit is allowed to indulge in life, inventing the miniskirt during a fashion show, you witness the vibrancy of her performance. If the film was a typical musical I’d assume Kensit would have a more dynamic performance to give. O’Connell’s good boy charm plays out for Colin, but, much like the majority of the characters, there isn’t any particular depth to his performance.
There is a climactic swing from the effervescent musical towards an explosive race riot. Based on true events and certainly played with suspense, it alters the final tone of the movie, putting on a downbeat when everything was looking up. Before this, Temple subtly sets up the racial discrimination playing out in London; a young woman tells her boyfriend (who is black) that they can’t be seen in public. But once people start pulling out switchblades, and a very hammy Fascist villain creeps up, the tenuous Old Hollywood posturing comes off as utterly preposterous.
With an isolated soundtrack score on the new Blu-ray, Twilight Time gives us a movie worth exploring, even if the final product is an acquired taste. Temple’s flair for juxtaposing old and new film styles is fun, and the set design creates a colorful, hedonistic environment. It’s easy to understand why this has become a cult classic.