ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS (1986)
Weds, March 18, 2020, 7:00 p.m.
Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepherd Dr
During the run of New Line's Head Over Heels
Tickets $10, at the door only
Starring Eddie O'Connell, David Bowie, Patsy Kensit, James Fox, Ray Davies, Anita Morris. Directed by Julien Temple. Based on the novel by Colin MacInnes. 108 minutes.
Welcome to the World of Your Dreams!
The Broadway musical was in a slump in 1986, but British film director Julien Temple was re-imagining the movie musical with the daring, fascinating, and thoroughly entertaining ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS
, a first step on the long road to the post-modern movie musical Moulin Rouge. The editors at Amazon.com describe the film’s setting this way: “a period piece exploring London's social transformation at the edge of the sixties – 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.”
The film opens with the voice-over, “I remember that hot wonderful summer, when the teenage miracle reached full bloom, and everyone in England stopped what they were doing to stare at what had happened.” Temple found the perfect blend of old-fashioned MGM movie musical, rock opera, and MTV music video. With a dash of social commentary, fairy tale, pop culture satire, and tragic romance, the film both captures and re-imagines 1958 London, and in the process, Temple created a new look for movie musicals – daylight shots on location (like contemporary films), nighttime shots on sound stages (like 1940s MGM movie musicals), a new color palette for each major scene, choreography that had one foot in the work of Gene Kelly and Jerome Robbins and one foot in eighties rock music video.
With character names like Dido Lament, Crepe Suzette, The Wizard, Fabulous Haplite, Big Jill, Vendice Partners, Ed the Ted, Baby Boom, Mr. Cool, and Henley of Mayfair, the story focuses on two teenage lovers, Suzette, a fashion designer, and Colin, a photographer, as she skyrockets to the top of the fashion world and he tries to hold on to his artistic ideals while he loses her affections. The film touches on several issues, including the birth of The Teenager as a cultural phenomenon (and potential market), British racism (directed at West Indian immigrants) and class prejudice, rabid post-World War II commercialism, early rock and roll, and race riots (based on the real life Notting Hill riot in 1958).
In terms of cinematography, Oliver Stapleton gave the film a look unlike anything that had come before. One extended steadicam shot near the beginning, worthy of A Touch of Evil and The Player, follows Colin throughout SoHo, up and down gritty, neoned streets, in and out of clubs, all in a brilliantly choreographed, high-energy montage that establishes the film’s heightened sense of time and place, and all without a single (visible) cut.
Variety said, “Absolute Beginners is a terrifically inventive original musical for the screen. Its daring attempt to portray the birth of teenagedom in London 1958, almost exclusively through song is based upon Colin MacInnes’ poetic cult novel about teen life and pop fashion in the percolating moments just before the youth cultural explosion in the early 1960s.” Caryn James wrote in the New York Times, “More than the stylish movie it is, more than the two-hour music video it threatens to become, Absolute Beginners is a movie about style – the 50s roots of 80s clothes and music, echoed through 40s musicals. Set in a neon-bright London in 1958, it has some of the 40s artifice of boys and girls bursting into song, yet is full of 80s rock stars and 70s survivors like David Bowie and Ray Davies. Looking through these layers of time, this flashy, extravagant rock musical elevates style to a symptom and cause of social change. And though it aims for more coherence than it delivers, it has endless flair with no self-importance. . . Mr. Temple never loses grasp of what this film is about. ‘It's my mission in life to bring pop culture to the masses,’ says a record producer Colin knows. For all its unevenness, Absolute Beginners is high pop culture.” The Chicago Reader said the film was built on “some of the stylistic innovations of Frank Tashlin, Vincente Minnelli, and Orson Welles, and put to best use a fascinating score by Gil Evans that adapts everything from Charles Mingus to Miles Davis.”