Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners

A commercial disaster upon its release in 1986, Absolute Beginners is an uneven but often stunning attempt at revitalizing the movie musical with postmodern sensibilities. Director Julien Temple was making his first foray into dramatic features after an impressive string of music videos and documentaries (including the first of two Temple-directed profiles of the Sex Pistols), and he upped the stakes by harnessing his visual ingenuity to a period piece exploring London's social transformation at the edge of the '60s--a fleeting moment in the pop zeitgeist that may as well have been the Cambrian Age to Temple's MTV-generation audience. This is post-World War II London turning the corner from economic austerity, giddy with jazz and early rock, yet to witness the Beatles and the Stones. Adapted from Colin MacInnes's novel, the story follows Colin (Eddie O'Connell), a young Londoner looking to find his place in the world. A budding romance with the intoxicating Suzette (Patsy Kensit) as well as crises of conscience over social responsibility and financial gain are the plot threads in a story that arguably tackles too many Big Ideas, including adolescent identity, British racism (directed at West Indian immigrants) and class prejudice, and capitalism itself, embodied by David Bowie as unctious, superstar executive Vendice Partners. In wrestling with such valiant ambitions, Temple and his young cast establish the film's musical soul in a canny synthesis of '80s English pop with postwar bop and the seeds of Mod culture. Onscreen performances by Fine Young Cannibals, Sade, and Kensit, a Bowie production number ("Motivation") that cribs from Busby Berkeley, and a wonderful sequence with the Kinks' Ray Davies as Arthur (a likely nod to his own band's 1969 rock opera) are all well realized. Less obviously, Temple salutes the period's forgotten jazz legacy through a score from the late Gil Evans, and in the jaw-dropping, bravura opening sequence, an extended single-camera journey through Soho set to Charles Mingus's joyous "Boogie Stop Shuffle" that is itself reason enough to see this brave musical. --Sam Sutherland

Production: HBO Video
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