Monday, April 18, 2011

 

Something tells me too many people turned a blind eye


By Edward Copeland
In 1986, I had one of the most pleasurable moviegoing experiences of my life. I don't remember the exact date but I had a free ticket to a long-gone twin cinema and they were showing a movie I hadn't heard much about called Absolute Beginners. I went to the first showing of the day, about 1 in the afternoon I think, and not only did I get in free, I was the only person in attendance, so no reason to worry about annoying talkers. To make it even more special, Julien Temple's film, which opened 25 years ago today in the U.S., enthralled me from the moment it began. Re-watching it again, it still captivates me.


The film's credits open with David Bowie (who also plays a role in the film) singing the title song which he wrote:

I've nothing much to offer
There's nothing much to take
I'm an absolute beginner
And I'm absolutely sane
As long as we're together
The rest can go to hell
I absolutely love you
But we're absolute beginners
With eyes completely open
But nervous all the same


If our love song
Could fly over mountains
Could laugh at the ocean
Just like the films
There's no reason
To feel all the hard times
To lay down the hard lines
It's absolutely true


Nothing much could happen
Nothing we can't shake
Oh we're absolute beginners
With nothing much at stake
As long as you're still smiling
There's nothing more I need
I absolutely love you
But we're absolute beginners
But if my love is your love
We're certain to succeed


If our love song
Could fly over mountains
Sail over heartaches
Just like the films
There's no reason
To feel all the hard times
To lay down the hard lines
It's absolutely true


Absolute Beginners at its essence is a musical, but not in a conventional way, but there isn't much conventional about the film. As a general rule, as a movie fan who watches films with a critical eye, I'm seldom seduced by films that are more style than substance — and that certainly is what Absolute Beginners is — but when that style gets handled this well and holds my attention without boring me and losing me in all the frosting and accoutrements, that kind of film can work and that is the effect Absolute Beginners had on me. It has a plot of sorts, but it hardly matters because what makes it so compelling is its status as eye and ear candy.

Based on the novel of the same name by Colin Macinnes, the absolute beginners of the title refer to teenagers in London in 1958. As the main character/narrator, also named Colin (Eddie O'Connell) explains early, "It was that hot wonderful summer when that teenage miracle came to London." As he says later, "Yanks invented the teenager and being anti-Yank was admitting defeat." Teens were spending money but, as Colin also observes, "Where there's loot, trouble follows." Things seem bright and fun again, for the first time since the dark days of the bombardment of World War II. Colin's mother even refers to him as a "blitz baby." It's Colin's last year as a teen and he lives on his own in a section of London they call Napoli that's a bit rundown, but it's cheap and he likes it because no one cares where you came from, what you look like or what you do. Races and sexual orientations mix freely and he likes it that way. He ekes out a living as a photographer by hitting Soho at night and snapping figures of all the various characters there, which Temple illustrates in an amazing, seemingly unbroken shot made all the more eyecatching by the impressive production design that takes Colin down various streets and alleyways, passing vehicles and pedestrians. I wish there were a YouTube clip of the opening sequence because seeing it would do it more justice than my words would.

Colin's romantic world revolves around the ambitious Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit), who he's usually lucky to meet each night at Chez Nobody. Suzette works for fashion designer Henley of Mayfair (James Fox), who promotes himself as dressmaker of the queen. She wishes that Colin would try to apply himself more and stop hanging out with his Soho friends who appear to be going nowhere, and try to become a successful photographer, even suggesting the record producer for would-be teen idols, Harry Charms (Lionel Blair) and that he show up at the premiere of Henley's next fashion line. "Money isn't everything," Colin tells her. "But it'll do til everything comes along," Suzette responds before bidding him farewell. Colin tells the audience that he doesn't have anything against money, just the things you have to do to get it.

Despite his better judgment, Colin does go to see Harry Charms who, like just about every character a decade or more past his teenage years, has something to sell, and, after taking Colin through a room of potential teen idols, Harry introduces Colin to his current star, the baby-face star Baby Boom (Chris Pitt) and his skyrocketing hit "Little Cat" (written in real-life by Nick Lowe). After Colin shoots a lot of photos of the recording session of Baby Boom and his bandmates, he shows up at Henley's fashion show, but Henley refuses to let him in because, unbeknownst to Colin, Suzette has become the show's accidental hit. Suzette works backstage helping to fix the models wearing his off-the-wall line of sea-inspired wares (dresses covered with starfish, etc.) as American gossip columnist Dido Lament (Anita Morris) tells Henley that he'll be laughed off the stage in Paris — hemlines should be coming up, not going down.


The exceedingly fey Henley tells Dido, "Darling, there is nothing worse than the back of a woman's knees. Reminds me of uncooked rockcakes." Soon after, one of the models rushes out on the stage despite Suzette's pleas that she's hooked to her and Suzette gets dragged out with her and her short black number proves an unexpected smash. Sensing the opportunity, Suzette adds sparkles and dashes of paint and takes over the show, pissing off the other models, but Henley's quick enough to take advantage of a gift and calls Suzette's outfit the introduction the birth of his "Young Idea." Dancing up a storm with a cadre of dancers, Suzette is a bona fide hit, only she's disappointed that Colin wasn't there to capture her moment like he said he would be, unaware that Henley kept him out.

Now, as much as I was enjoying Absolute Beginners anyway the first time I saw it, truly the moment that won me over was when Colin spoke of his father Arthur "the sweetest bloke you'd ever want to meet," played by Ray Davies, lead singer of The Kinks. It's his only scene in the film and really has no relation to rest of the motion picture, but the musical number, written by Davies, is so wonderful that the movie would have me in its fanbase forever. Colin goes to visit his family home in Pimlico to use the darkroom in the bomb shelter. Dear old dad performs "Quiet Life" on a tri-level cutaway set of the house where action is occurring in every room of the residence during the song involving Colin's mother Flora (Mandy Rice-Davies), his obnoxious half-brother Vern (Peter-Hugo Daly) and various boarders that his mother dallies with, though Arthur is quite aware of the affairs. The idea most likely had its inspiration from the set in Jean-Luc Godard's Tout va Bien from 1972, but I hadn't seen that film then. Later, Wes Anderson did another variation in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Thankfully, YouTube did have the complete clip of "Quiet Life," with the clip beginning with Colin and his dad talking in the darkroom before the song begins.



As I said, "Quiet Life" really has little to do with the story of Absolute Beginners, but then again plot is not the reason it's such an enjoyable film experience. Temple, whose work prior to this consisted mostly of music videos or music documentaries, shows a great eye for visual composition, aided immensely by his team of craftspeople who lit, filmed and designed the sets and costumed the performers. I've always been curious why Temple didn't branch out more after Absolute Beginners but of the features he's made since, the only one that got much notice was, of all things, Earth Girls Are Easy. Having never read the Macinnes novel, I've always been curious as to how it read and what it really covered, but the power of youth and the idea of the birth of teenagers as a marketing demographic and new economic class makes for a great hook. Temple manages to keep the film in constant motion, but he doesn't do it in a "I'm gonna get motion sickness and throw up" way such as Danny Boyle did in 127 Hours. His moves and cuts are smooth as can be.

The movie isn't remotely a conventional musical: There isn't a single team composing the songs but lots of contributors in a variety of musical styles. Kensit does sing as part of the group Eighth Wonder for her number "Having It All," but for Colin's solo number — "Have You Ever Had It Blue?" — credit goes to The Style Council with no mention of O'Connell being involved. I don't know how that goes for his small parts of the big David Bowie number "That's Motivation." Slim Gaillard performs "Selling Out" when Colin does just that by showing up at a ritzy party to see Suzette only to learn that she's now "engaged" to Henley, despite the obvious gap in their age and sexual tendencies. When Henley declares to Colin that he's only 37, Colin replies, "around the waist maybe." Despite the hours he keeps and his club life, that party is the first time Colin gets drunk and, needless to say it does not go well, coming as it does with the news of Suzette's engagement. It's also where he meets Bowie's character, Vendice Partners. At a different party, we actually get Sade playing the character Athene Duncannon as she performs "Killer Blow" to fit Colin's mood after the engagement news.

The entire sequence when he goes to meet with Vendice is about how the future isn't about selling things, but selling dreams and it's Colin's first step toward his playing the part of "the professional teenager." It also introduces the one part of the movie that seems somewhat out of place with the spirit of the rest and launches a darker edge that could have been more worthwhile if developed earlier and if the rest of the film wasn't played on such a level of frivolity. It seems that Vendice and Henley are partners in a development project that uses white supremacists to try to drive the blacks and all non-white straight Christians out of the Napoli area to make way for it. It's the part that most always made me want to look up the novel, because it seemed so out of place with the spirit of the rest of the movie. Before we get to that though, there is the fun of that Bowie number, where Colin tours his office, learns about motivation and a world where he can commit all the sins he wants and get away with them. Again, fortunately YouTube has this sequence.



The riot sequence does get filmed well, even if some of the fighting does end up being choreographed much like the rumbles in West Side Story, only with a dark edge and without simultaneous singing. The most interesting moment is when Colin, who rooms with Cool (Tony Hippolyte) and always has been his good friend tries to help him and other black friends, insisting he's on their side while Cool tells him, "You're on your own" and faces the shock that a white friend of his, Wizard (Graham Fletcher-Cook), turns out to be a racist. Colin admits that this conflict has been "building with the heat all summer" which seems sort of interesting, coming three years before Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, except Lee's film actually dealt with the subject. It just seems like a sudden switch from the story that's come before. It does give Colin an excuse to confront an unhappily married Suzette with what Henley is up to, but their story sort of gets lost in the fascist hate as Steven Berkoff makes a cameo as a hate group leader and, for some reason, Henley and Suzette drive into the middle of the melee just so Suzette can get out of his car and start joining rioters in beating the hell out of it. The movie doesn't make clear what happens to Henley and I guess it's tacking on a happy ending by reuniting Colin and Suzette and throwing away her wedding ring, but the riots just seem an odd story turn for a film whose strengh is its style to end on.

Even with those reservations, what comes before provides such aural and visual pleasure, that it's hard to complain about the part that seems as if it belongs to another movie. Temple's spirited and inspired direction, production design by John Beard (Brazil, The Last Temptation of Christ), Stuart Rose (Scorsese's forthcoming Hugo Cabret, Me and Orson Welles) and Ken Wheatley's art direction, cinematography by Oliver Stapleton (The Grifters), costumes by Sue Blane (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and David Perry (Alien3), the entire set dressing team, the film editing team of Richard Bedford (Shock Treatment), Michael Bradsell (Local Hero, Henry V), Gerry Hambling (Fame, Pink Floyd The Wall) and Russell Lloyd (The Man Who Would Be King), choreography by David Toguri (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and that remarkable music, including the score and its overall arrangement by Gil Evans. It also was produced by Chris Brown (Mona Lisa) and Stephen Woolley (The Crying Game and most of Neil Jordan's films, as well as last year's Made in Dagenham).

What saddens me is that for some reason I never replaced my LP of the soundtrack on CD. Seeing it again 25 years later, I think I may have to, if it's available for a reasonable price. I also still wonder what happened to the careers of Eddie O'Connell and Patsy Kensit. Kensit has an extensive IMDb resume (I forgot she was in Lethal Weapon 2) and remains active, but O'Connell's credits are slim with nothing listed after 2003, though it says he appeared in Sexy Beast, but I don't remember him in it


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Comments:
Fascinating to get a Stateside appraisal of this. It was absolutely torn to shreds by the cognoscenti in Britain, because of its lack of fidelity to the source novel (something of a sacred text to London Mods). It is indeed a travesty if it's seen to be *about* the late 50s, but I've always thought of it as a glorious, tongue-in-cheek portrait of its own time. 1980s London was a weirdly postmodern place, with 50s fashions, 60s music, 70s punk/DIY attitude and contemporary yuppy ethics all rubbing along together, and I reckon Temple pulled it off.

If I recall, Eddie O'Connell doesn't sing at all; for "Have You Ever Had It Blue?" he's miming along to the vocals of Paul Weller, frontman of the Style Council. Weller, previously of The Jam, had been one of the standard-bearers of the late-70s Mod revival, and was a big cheerleader for Macinnes’s writings; he'd previously written a different song entitled 'Absolute Beginners'. I don't think he liked the film much, notwithstanding his own passing involvement.

Excellent, and long-overdue reappraisal. Good stuff, Mr C.
 
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