I’m truly hoping that you all have had a chance to watch the excellent video-documentary “The Origin Of The Species” in which Keith Richards manages to be charming (much more so than in “Life”) and hugely wise in telling the story of his early life growing up in the rather grey world of post-war Britain. It uses fantastic editing and different video techniques to bring to life the various episodes of Keef’s early life long before he started Rolling with the Stones. It is engaging, warm and beautifully constructed.
This construction comes from breaking the conventions of normally biographical documentary story telling and has a pace and visual attractiveness that I suspect many are about to follow. I was not therefore, surprised to see that the director was Julien Temple, a long-time collaborator with the Stones and one of the pioneers of some of the most memorable moments of MTV history.
He had been the director of the Sex Pistols “The Great Rock N Roll Swindle” (and later “The Filth & The Fury”) often bringing social and political commentary into his work at a time when others were still chasing frothier pursuits. The once-controversial “Undercover Of The Night” may look tame now but succeeded in gaining the sort of front page notoriety from the more statesman like Stones they hadn’t seen in years because of its very strong political leanings and the use of guns – Mick’s mustache is still just as disturbing, however.
Of course, all this retrospection – together with the untimely passing of David Bowie – impelled me to re-investigate the 30th Anniversary version of Temple’s “Absolute Beginners” – the film that allegedly wrecked the British Film Industry and destroyed Goldcrest, which rather unfairly erases the respective roles of the unwieldy and bloated “Revolution” and “The Mission”.
Nevertheless, it was launched in 1986 after huge hype and sank like a stone amidst some very unpleasant critical vitriol. I know I didn’t think much of it at the time.
Time to revisit the film and its soundtrack.
Honestly, it’s still significantly flawed but much more interesting than I remember and in parts, hugely enjoyable. Perhaps because we end up looking at the past while it is, itself looking at the past, it seems to throw up a lot of discussion points that say so much about now, about then and about the time the film is set.
Firstly, one of the criticisms of the film is that it feels like a bunch of pop promos stitched together, which is using the director as a soft target. In actual fact, the disjointedness of the film seems to have come from the fact that the distributors became so nervous about getting the film out that they used four separate editors at once, all working on different sections of the film, having basically fired Temple and his production team.
But the film does look fabulous and there are some wonderful set-pieces in it that are a triumph of lighting and art direction. David Bowie in the “That’s Motivation” sequence is particularly striking, tap dancing in a Busby Berkeley number on top of the world and a giant typewriter. Indeed, the incredible long sweep opening shot of the sizzling and seedy quadrant of Soho, made such an impression on one of the film’s most famous Transatlantic fans (and her brother) that she used Temple to recreate it for one of the great (and certainly one of my favorite) pop promos of the period.
On reflection, the original from the film is still better.
At the heart of the film’s problems is a lack of chemistry between the two leads. Eddie O’Connell (better than I remembered) and Patsy Kensit (though still tigerishly smouldering, is far worse – “I’m Not Scared” with Eighth Wonder was just around the corner, to restore her place in my poor benighted heart). In truth, she seems bizarrely better suited with the elderly James Fox as the effete Henley of Mayfair and that basically kills the entire premise of love’s labour found.
From this flaw though, the film never truly recovers, so we’ll park that.
Because there is much else to enjoy and Temple’s fascination for the era of Be-bop London and subsequent attention to detail should not be over-looked. Admittedly, there were significant liberties taken with Colin Macinnes’s original novel – and that of course alarmed many of its devotees – but this was a musical, made at a time when nobody made musicals – over 15 years since “Oliver” and roughly the same period before “Chicago” with only the anomaly of “Grease” in the way, and no stage-show libretto to work from.
What’s even more interesting is that this period of tremendous racial tension which resulted in the fierce Notting Hill riots in the summer of 1958 should provide inspiration but this film comes from a time only a matter of months from its own significant tension which had struck many of Britain’s multi-cultural inner cities. Temple certainly wanted to make his views well known on the tension and his feelings against the strong and unpleasant undercurrents that were dividing society still. Steven Berkoff is made that terrifying for a reason.
The 80s never ceases to surprise me, looking back, as how welded the music scene was in the desire to change outmoded societal patterns and this film attempts to take nearly all of them on – how do you think Paul Weller gets to be involved. Would we even think pop music had such power nowadays?
Oh and it’s a musical, don’t forget.
Perhaps the place to start is David Bowie. He looks utterly fantastic in this movie – every shape he pulls is designed for a record sleeve; the slick haircut, the electric blue suit. It is virtually impossible (as with every appearance he ever made) to take your eyes off him and yet (and I hate to say this) he simply is not that good an actor. Or maybe he is just too big a star to be anything other than the magnificent David Bowie.
After that sacrilege, let me redeem myself. Aside from the chronologically accurate version of “Volare” which is probably his first attempt at humour since “The Laughing Gnome”, Bowie delivers a title track from the very top drawer. “Absolute Beginners” comes from one of his least celebrated periods (“Blue Jean” had been directed by Temple) and yet may well be one of the most poignant and romantic songs he ever produced. There is a real sense of fragility and delicacy despite its big orchestral riff that keeps re-occurring throughout the soundtrack.
Of course, Bowie himself was very much a product of the late 50s, growing up in Bromley and Temple is very keen to give an authentic flavour to the whole proceedings. You’ll see other veterans of the period, Sandie Shaw and Mandy Rice-Davies in charming little cameos (which is another of the enjoyable aspects of the film) as well as Lionel Blair appearing as Bobby Charms, the thinly veiled caricature of 60s pop impresario, Larry Parnes.
The lovingly recreated 2i’s coffee bar, street skiffle bands and even the rockabilly bomb site belter from Edward Tudorpole (better known to us as Tenpole Tudor) all give an added authenticity to the visual landscape that the film seeks to create.
Unlike Bowie, Ray Davies, whose own career had had an unexpected early 80s boost through his nostalgic video hit “Come Dancing” – also directed by Temple – seemed to put in a much more credible performance as Colin’s put-upon father. This whole section feels absolutely like a pop promo and in many way a separate entity from the rest of the film but it was directed produced and finished before the rest of the film was even begun as the backers wanted something ready to start to drum up interest with the trade and further investors. It is very much a latter-day Davies slice of life vaudeville number which seems to have become his default composing style.
And if you look closely – there’s Bruno Tonioli, as a Maltese lodger!
The soundtrack however, is the most interesting part of the package. There is a genuine attempt to capture the multi-cultural nature and timeline of the story with reggae, be-bop, ska, rockabilly, pop and of course, jazz. So whilst Smiley Culture toasts his way through Miles Davis’ jazz classic “So What” , the whole piece is welded together by British jazz veteran Gil Evans and this provides a considerable amount of drama to the proceedings especially in its “West Side Story” style gang fights.
However, it really is reflecting an interesting musical genre of the mid-80s which was Jazz-Pop (or Sophisti-pop, as I’ve hideously heard it referred to) and it was perhaps best exemplified by the original vision of The Style Council and Paul Weller in his “Cappucino Kid” guise with his beatnik musings and hep-cat stylings.
Weller was of course a huge fan of Colin Macinnes’s novel and had written a different song called “Absolute Beginners” during his days in The Jam and his espousing of its virtues as a piece of key literature for the cognoscenti of the post-New Wave world had indeed led to the level of expectation that surrounded the film on its launch. Naturally, he was keen to add to the soundtrack and re-wrote one of the previous year’s “Our Favourite Shop” (a real jazz-pop cabaret piece) stand out tracks “With Everything To Lose” and re-christened it “Have You Ever Had It Blue”. Like Bowie, the film and its closeness to his heart, created a forlorn romanticism that had often been uncalled on in Weller’s more politically directed work of the time. Aside from a bass effect which rather dates the track badly, it still stands as one of his highlight tracks from this (or for me any) period of his career, even if it has, probably because of the film, been one of his least celebrated.
Of course, the film’s intention was to recreate the Jazz Clubs of 50s London but this was also the scene for 80s London. I remember spending late nights in Ronnie Scotts as the mecca of this type of musical movement and hearing several of the characters old and new who would feature on the soundtrack. Working Week give us “Rodrigo Bay” and Jerry Dammers the frenzied “Riot City” while Charlie Parker veteran Slim Gaillard gets the joint jumping with the belting “Selling Out” lending it all a real sense of authenticity.
The song and performance that perhaps bridges the three decades best is Sade (who appears as the wonderfully named Athene Duncannon) performing a rare track “Killer Blow”, which is as rich and languid as any of her more familiar work and could well have stood out on any of her albums. Her performance is cat-like and screen-filling, which is impressive as she has no dialogue at all. It is another of the key scenes that seems to capture the very essence of the world, Temple wanted to recreate.
Of course, it is a fascinating period piece and particularly interesting when you then compare it to films from the late 50s such as “Sapphire” or “Flame In The Streets” which try to confront an issue that Britain of the time was not at all comfortable with. What you realize is that Temple was of the belief that things had not really improved that much in three decades and looking back, are our divisions much improved now?
The be-bop cool of London in the 80s which had started at places like The Wag Club never really took off after this movie but did transform into the deliberately more cultish and more authentic Acid Jazz. Perhaps it’s problem lay in being simply too Soho-based. The Style Council would certainly decline significantly before splitting up three years later with its vision rather lost in the new world of raves and house.
So, thirty years later, as I finish the film and the soundtrack again, I find myself a defender for everything the film set out to do. It was brave to the point of reckless in combining a conventional boy meets girl story amongst a wealth of social commentary for both its 50s protagonists and its 80s audiences, but in a genre that really had been left unattempted for many years.
The music is still vibrant, the lighting is incredible and the film looks fantastic. Its attention to detail – with the exception of using a bridge that didn’t open for another ten years or so after the film’s setting – puts many period pieces to shame. “Absolute Beginners” was accused of bringing down Goldcrest and the entire British film industry – both of which are untrue – but if it did, it wasn’t through syphoning off the investment because it is all there up on the screen.
If you revisit the film and soundtrack, do as the director would urge and put your prejudices to one side. As we are led to believe this is not a perfect world (and there’s Patsy Kensit’s performance to remind us of that) but if the film is really a failure, then it is a glorious and brave one.