Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Absolute Beginners (1986)

Absolute Beginners, based on the classic cult novel of the same name by Colin MacInnes, is a love story set against the long hot summer and simmering racial tensions of London in 1958 - the year the teenager was born. It was the biggest movie of 1986, and the biggest flop too; the film that is said to have almost sunk Goldcrest and the British film industry in one fell swoop.

Absolute Beginners was decreed to be an Absolute Disaster.

You could say that you couldn't move for the buzz surrounding Absolute Beginners back in '86; it was bigged up by Face and NME, it had campaigns on TV and radio, and it secured David Bowie's involvement both as an actor and with the eponymous and sublime hit single. The hype was so great that, despite the critical and commercial mauling upon its cinema release, people still seemed to want to see it - I can well remember sitting in the car as a kid whilst my sister chatted to a mate of hers on the street, and the radio was playing Bowie's Absolute Beginners whilst the DJ noted the film was having its premiere on TV that night. My sister's mate said she'd be stopping in that evening to watch it.

Perhaps what really hampered Absolute Beginners is the affection so many have for the novel, myself included. Paul Weller - who appears on the film's soundtrack with The Style Council's Have You Ever Had It Blue - once described it as 'the ultimate mod book' and his personal favourite. A story that means so much to so many people, each with their own vision of how it should be told, meant that any film adaptation was always going to come up short - and Julien Temple's bold and frenetic West Side Story meets the Carry Ons style telling was always going to be divisive. The film changes much of the novel, emphasising and bolstering some aspects whilst dropping some altogether and, just like the novel, the film simply scrambles to a halt.

But despite the negativity surrounding Temple's efforts, you cannot deny that Absolute Beginners is a superb visual spectacle, with Martin Scorsese himself a devotee of the opening, steadicam tracking shot through a kinetic staged Soho. The film captures as much of the mid '80s as it ever does the late '50s which makes it an interesting document in itself these days, though it is fair to say that it suffers in placing so much on the shoulders of its stars, Eddie O'Connell and Patsy Kensit. The chemistry is non-existent and Kensit herself stated in the BBC's I Love 1986 that there was little love lost between them.  

The flaws of Kensit's acting have long since been discussed but, unlike her, O'Connell's career failed to prosper in the same high-profile way. He's equally as wooden, and seemed to be primarily cast for his likeness to Bowie, in the hope that the subsequent mentor and protege relationship that occurs later in the film gained some spark. Alas, it isn't really there. So stick around instead for the musical numbers from Bowie, Sade, and Ray Davies, the scene-stealing efforts of Steven Berkoff, Eve Ferret and Bruce Payne and to spot the cameos from the likes of Mandy Rice-Davies, Irene Handl, Johnny Shannon (reuniting with his Performance co-star James Fox) Alan 'Fluff' Freeman and Lionel Blair as a Larry Parnes-style pop impresario.  There's even a blink and you'll miss it turn from Strictly's Bruno Tonioli! See if you can spot him in the following clip

You can read more abut the film, straight from the horses mouth of Temple and Kensit here.

Post script: I've been googling about the film and some of its cast since this rewatch and I saw that Tony Hippolyte who played Cool sadly passed away earlier this year and was cremated here in my hometown of St Helens, having lived in Skelmersdale for a number of years.

 Small world, sad news. RIP Mr Cool.


  1. In my recollection , it was "Revolution" that did the damage to Goldcrest and "Absolute Beginners" wasn't strong enough to rescue the situation.

    1. yes I think you're right, in fact I think I said that in my review of Revolution. But Stephen Woolley seemed happy to take the blame in I LOVE 1986 I think, so it's worth putting it at their door here too