Absolute Beginners (1986): Julien Temple’s Pop Culture Musical, Starring David Bowie and Patsy Kensit

British Julien Temple, who began his career producing splashy music videos, makes an original but not entirely satisfying feature debut with Absolute Beginners, a vivid look at Britain’s pop culture circa 1958.

Loosely based on Colin MacInnes’ novel, the tale concerns a photographer (played by Eddie O’Connell) and his object of desire, a beautiful fashion designer (Patsy Kensit).  Iconic star David Bowie makes an appearance as a slick advertising executive.

But the movie is not about plot, which is slender, as about dynamically amusing set pieces and campy and gaudy production numbers, orchestrated and supervised by jazz specialist Gil Evans.

Time has passed and what was impressive in the 1960s, in movies about swinging London like “Darling” with Julie Christie, or Blow-Up! With David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, is not so much so in the 1980s.

Even so, the original, roller-coaster ride like picture is sporadically entertaining, and since not many musical films are made any more, any generic effort should be supported.

“Absolute Beginners” benefits immensely from the colorful secondary cast, which includes, in addition to David Bowie, the always reliable James Fox, pop stars Ray Davies and Sade Azu, jazz vet Slim Gaillard, and the notorious Mandy Rice-Davies (of the Profumo political scandal)

 

Born in 1953, in London, Temple studied history and architecture at Cambridge, and later took classes at London’s Film School.  He made his feature debut with “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” in 1979, followed by “The Second Policeman’s Ball” in 1982, a campy, pop culture phenom that the young company Miramax released theatrically with great success in American campuses and other towns.

Like most of Temples’ pictures, “Absolute Beginners” is an acquired taste, a wild, often rambling and choppily edited (by design) musical extravaganza.

Unlike most feature directors with background in music videos, the gifted Julien Temple has not made a typical MTV film in “Absolute Beginners,” an exploration of the pop culture scene in London, based on Colin MacInnes’s novel, circa 1958, of the same title.

Though the film is flawed, particularly in the area of characterization, it’ still an underrated work, both thematically and visually. The movie’s opening shot, an impressive long take, has been compared to that in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” and Robert Altman’s “The Player.”

The saga, centering on a nave photographer (Eddie O’Connell), the fashion designer (Patsy Kensit) he loves, and an advertising exec (David Bowie), examines the issues of breaking into a desirable milieu, ambitiously moving up, and then inevitably selling out.

While the plot is meager, the movie is strong on ambience and production numbers. And Temple deserves credit for amassing a stellar supporting ensemble, composed of James Fox, David Bowie, and fellow pop stars Mandy Rice-Davies of the Perfumo scandal, Sade (billed here as Sade Adu), and jazz vet Slim Gaillard. Gil Evans, one of modern Jazz’s best arrangers, supervised the score, which contributes a lot to the film’s overall impact.

Director Alert

Born in London in 1953, Temple majored in architecture and history at Cambridge, but after attending London’s National Film School, he became interested in pop culture and music.  Among other features, Temple directed the funny comedy “The Secret Policemen’s Other Ball” (1982), the uneven “Earth Girl Are Easy” (1989) and the poignant docu, “The Filth and the Fury” (2000).

For the record:

In 1960, Val Guest made a picture, “Expresso Bongo,” starring Laurence Harvey (“Room at the Top”) and pop star Cliff Richard, that looked at the same phenom.

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