Charles and I watched a movie I’d recorded from TCM Friday night, Absolute Beginners, a 1986 British youth-culture film which he’d expressed interest in, saying it was one of the few late-1980’s movies in that genre he hadn’t seen when it was new. It was being presented on TCM by a host named Ileana Douglas (Melvyn Douglas’s granddaughter, though I’d never heard of her before) under a rubric of unjustly neglected films, more recent than most of what TCM shows — and it turned out to be a delight start-to-finish, the sort of movie Baz Luhrmann was trying to make in Moulin Rouge! but to my mind done considerably better. Absolute Beginners began life as a novel by Colin MacInnes — probably not coincidentally, the male lead in the film is also named Colin — published in 1958, which would make interesting reading if only because it’s hard to believe it would be as far-out as the film. It was originally about the young cult of modern-jazz fans in the U.K. in the late 1950’s, at a time when Dixieland jazz (called “trad” — short for “traditional” — in Britain) still had a mass-market following in the U.K. but only a handful of cultists liked bebop and its derivatives, but the film version went through a mass of writers (Michael Hamlyn gets a “developed by” credit, whatever that means, and Richard Burridge, Don Macpherson and Christopher Wicking get the main screenplay credits while Terry Johnson is listed for “additional dialogue”) and I suspect very little of MacInnes’ original was left other than the basic situation of young “scene” photographer Colin (Eddie O’Connell) working in and around the club scene of London c. 1958 (his main hangout is the “Club Nowhere”) and having to deal with a dysfunctional family, his attempt to maintain a Bohemian lifestyle in the face of gentrification, racial tensions between London’s whites and Blacks (most of whom are from the West Indies and speak with discernible Caribbean accents) and, most important as a plot driver, his love/lust for aspiring fashion designer Suzette (Patsy Kensit, whom one imdb.com reviewer listed as making her film debut here even though she’d actually been making movies for 14 years when she filmed this, having begun as a child in such roles as Tom Buchanan’s daughter in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby and Mytyl in the 1976 version of The Blue Bird) — who’s considerably more money-hungry and status-conscious than he is. Julien Temple is best known as one of the pioneering directors of music videos and also a maker of concert films and musical documentaries (including the quite compelling one about Joe Strummer, The Future Is Unwritten), and here he comes as close as anyone has to figuring out how to integrate video-style musical sequences into a plotted film the way the best musical filmmakers of the classic era (particularly Rouben Mamoulian in the 1930’s and Vincente Minnelli in the 1940’s and 1950’s) did with the pop music of their time.
Absolute Beginners is nominally set in 1958, when Colin MacInnes published his novel, but it’s actually a mashup of cultural referents from the 1950’s, 1960’s (the whole “Swinging London” hype that promoted Britain’s capital as a worldwide hub of music and especially fashion), 1970’s (race riots and the rise of neo-fascist movements in Britain) and 1980’s (the decade of glitz and glamour, as the combination of gentrification — which made the old Bohemian lifestyle essentially unaffordable — and the ideological triumph of Margaret Thatcher on her side of the Atlantic and Ronald Reagan on ours basically killed social idealism and made selling out seem not only lucrative but actually cool). Absolute Beginners follows Colin as he loses Suzette (inevitably nicknamed “Crepe Suzette”!) to Henley (James Fox, who had already co-starred with Mick Jagger in Nicolas Roeg’s film Performance and was therefore no stranger to making a movie with major rock stars), her employer and ultimately her husband. Suzette scandalizes Henley when she invents the mini-skirt and sneaks some into his big fashion show, essentially taking it over in a guerrilla action; the short-skirt design is an instant hit and Henley is saved from failure, and he repays Suzette with far more of the world’s affluence than poor, schnooky Colin could ever offer her. Colin responds by selling out himself — there’s even an ode to selling out in the script that becomes one of the most spectacular numbers in the film, and another one called “That’s Inspiration” in which advertising mogul Vendice (David Bowie — you first recognize his voice singing the title song but it’s still a surprise when he turns up in the movie, and as one of the villains, yet!) dances around a giant typewriter (a gimmick copied from Bobby Connolly’s Busby Berkeley-esque treatment of the great “Too Marvelous for Words” number from Ready, Willing and Able in 1937 and explains the principles of advertising (“We don’t sell things, we sell dreams,” he explains) in a song performed not only around a giant typewriter but also a giant turntable displaying a record called “That’s Inspiration” by a group called “The Hidden Persuaders.” (This is an in-joke reference to Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders, a late-1950’s best-seller explaining how advertisers were hiring psychologists as consultants to make their pitches irresistibly appealing to our basic human natures.)
While all this is going on, the neighborhood of “Napoli” where Colin lives (though he has to return to the boardinghouse his parents run because that’s where his darkroom is) — which we instantly know is run-down because Temple and his cinematographer, Oliver Stapleton, shoot it in the dank greens and browns that have become the de rigueur look for virtually all modern cinema even though the scenes of London’s night life are in vivid, intense, vibrant color — is under assault by a gang of neo-fascists who are opening demanding to push all the “niggers” out of Britain. They’re led by “The Fanatic” (avant-garde playwright Steven Berkoff), who’s deliberately shot to resemble Hitler, but he’s really being paid (like Jack Cade in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2) by far more affluent and openly “respectable” people — in this case Henley and Vendice, who in addition to their involvements with fashion and advertising (respectively) are also partners in the White Development Corporation, which aims to tear down all the existing housing in Napoli and replace it with an incredibly ugly (at least judging from the architectural model we see) super-high-rise apartment building aimed at (white) newlyweds. (We get a nice symbol of their agenda when one of the billboards they put up in front of the site advertises tourism to apartheid-era South Africa.) Colin’s own sell-out is accomplished with the help of Harry Charms (Lionel Blair), a pop-music manager and impresario based on the real Larry Parnes (he built his fortune on signing male singers, giving them tempestuous names like “Billy Fury” — his biggest star — and building them up as teen idols; in 1960 he hired a then-unknown group called The Beatles to back up one of his lesser artists, Johnny Gentle, on a tour of Scotland, but turned down his chance to sign The Beatles as clients because he was only interested in solo singers, not bands), who discovers a slight, barely teenage kid, calls him “Baby Boom” and hires Colin to shoot his promotional photos; and American expat gossip columnist “Dido Lament” (quirkily named after the big aria Queen Dido of Carthage sings in Purcell’s one-act opera Dido and Aeneas), who gets him on a big TV show — only he realizes both him and his friends are being held up to ridicule, and he walks out on the show and any hope of a big-shot career. He also walks right into a race riot, which Ileana Douglas in her show intro seemed astonished was being done as a musical number (hadn’t she ever seen the film West Side Story? Temple’s debt to it — and choreographer David Toguri’s debt to Jerome Robbins — are really obvious), and which resolves at least some of the plot issues.
Absolute Beginners is a fascinating film, one that seems to reach across the ages and have relevance for today (27 years after it was made and 55 years after it at least nominally takes place), especially given how thoroughly commodified the world has become, how it’s become even more difficult to survive as a low-income artist the way Colin is trying to in the story, and also how the ongoing economic crisis has given a boost to many neo-fascist, openly racist Right-wing parties in European countries that are spouting rhetoric similar to that in this film — though now it’s aimed more at Arabs or Muslims than Blacks. Temple’s musical instincts are also strong enough he’s able to create a world in which 1950’s jazz, 1970’s rock and 1980’s pop can coexist on the same soundtrack; he hired Gil Evans to do his score — Gil Evans, the man who collaborated with Miles Davis on some of the most haunting big-band records of the late 1950’s, then went into rock and then edged back towards jazz before his death in 1988 — and filled his cast with singers, notably Bowie and also Ray Davies as Colin’s father. (Ironically, neither Charles nor I recognized either his body or his speaking voice — but as soon as he started to sing, we both knew instantly who he was.) Despite the pretentious introduction it got from Ileana Douglas (who recalled working with Patsy Kensit on a film in the 1990’s), Absolute Beginners really is a largely forgotten film that deserves to be much better known — though it also piques my curiosity about the novel, if only to find out if it is as wild, extravagant and energetic as the film!