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REVIEW – Absolute Beginners (1986)

July 26, 2016

Long before there was the internet and film magazines, there were trailers squeezed onto the VHS tapes I rented as a child. In those days, trailers were my only connection to the broader cinematic world and while they inspired me to seek out certain films, they could also convince me to avoid certain films at all costs.

The funny thing is that many of those emotional reactions remained with me well into adulthood. In fact, with the possibly exception of Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners may well have been the first film I refused to see out of spite because I was annoyed by the amount of hype that surrounded its initial release. It may have taken thirty years but the spell is finally broken and I have reviewed Absolute Beginners for FilmJuice!

Set in the late 1950s, the film follows a group of teenagers caught in a maelstrom of economic and cultural renewal: On the one hand, the poverty of the post-war years combined with the shoots of economic recovery allowed for the creation of cultural spaces where the young were allowed to find their voices, have their say, and generally call the shots. On the other hand, this emerging youth culture appeals not only to the uncool kids who desperately want to be a part of it, but also to wealthy older people who want to exploit that desire as well as the teenage creativity that feeds it. In other words, the film’s protagonists have been presented with a choice between remaining true to their working-class roots and selling out in order to make their fortunes. Based on a trilogy of gritty novels by Colin McInnes, Absolute Beginners uses razor sharp visuals and 1980s pop music to capture what it feels like to be young, gifted, and burdened with opportunity:

Set in the late 1950s, the film waxes nostalgic about the cultural renewal of the late-1950s only to channel these feelings of nostalgia into a biting commentary on the forces of cultural and economic reaction that had been unleashed by the rapidly-maturing Thatcher government. Shot mostly on studio lots and concerned mostly with the past, the film voices its feelings of malaise by painstakingly recreating 1950s Soho only to litter it with anachronistic touches like neon socks, punk rock fashion shows, and the music of performers like David Bowie, Sade, Ray Davies, and the Style Council. At the time, critics hated the film’s unsettling combination of nostalgia and modernity but time and distance allow us to see a film that is beautiful, stylish, and made with more political insight that almost any other British film of the 1980s.

The film opens with a succession of long-take explorations of 1950s Soho. Our guide is Colin (Eddie O’Connell) a working class lad who is eking out a living as a street photographer while trying to secure the affections of the ambitious fashion designer Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit). These long takes are arguably the best things about the film as Temple recreates a vision of 1950s Soho that is vibrant, transgressive, multi-cultural and positively over-flowing with life. This is a place where races mingle with sexualities as crime, passion, and violence spill out onto rain-slicked streets. As Colin puts it, knives are sometimes drawn… but only among friends.

Absolute Beginners is a beautifully shot film that manages to smuggle a highly-sophisticated critique of 1950s British capitalism out under the auspices of a crowd-pleasing musical. The only flaw in the plan was that the film was sold not only as a musical but as a musical featuring (then) popular musicians performing their own material. Given the glamour that surrounded the British music industry in the early 1980s, it is easy to see why the producers might have decided to sell the film on the strength of its musical elements… the only problem was that none of the tunes turned out to be in any way memorable. This perhaps explained why the film tanked at the box office and failed to win over many critics.

Strip out the shitty music and what you have is fantastic Julien Temple film about Thatcherism and the collapse of British punk. This is a film in desperate need of a serious critical reappraisal.

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