Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners

Cinemateket / Filmens Hus/ the place of many names in Oslo is having a David Bowie film season, which is a bloody excellent idea. There are a few omissions from the list; no ‘Just a Gigolo’, ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ or ‘Basquiat’ but ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘The Prestige’ all made the cut, along with ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. Even ‘Christian F’ is there, under its Norwegian name of ‘Å være ung er for jævlig’.  If only I had the time to go and see them all on the big screen!

‘The Prestige’ (by the way) is a great film, not only is Bowie’s turn as Nikola Tesla very watchable, but this film is also based on a novel by one of my favourite living authors, Christopher Priest. Most of his stories would almost certainly be unfilmable (although I live in hope that ‘The Glamour’ or ‘A Dream of Wessex’ make it one day – with CGI we can do anything, right?) but ‘the Prestige’ is a beautiful and atmospheric tale which does work on screen, albeit after a few notable changes from the novel.

So, about Absolute Beginners, then.

6 pm on Friday evening found me sitting in a darkened salon with my other half and about 20 other people. The film started, and it soon became clear that what we were watching was an original distribution copy of the film, with all of the scratches, damaged frames and occasional distortion that implies. I suppose we have become spoiled with the beautiful quality of what we see these days, not only in cinemas but in our own homes, on our glittering screens, but this was a surprise and an unexpected reminder of how far we have come in thirty years.

Thirty years. A film set in the 1950s, made in the 1980s, watched once again in the teenage years of the 21st century.

I found this trailer for the movie on YouTube. The man tasked with the narration sounds deeply unimpressed!

Absolute Beginners trailer – go see it, if you can be bothered.

I do love Absolute Beginners, but I am not blind to its flaws, and I recall the trashing it got on release. A Radio One deejay (I forget which one – they all sounded the same though, right?) gave David Bowie a hard time (cheeky MoFo) during an interview about the film and Bowie said, “It went up on the big screen, daddio.” Julien Temple has made some beautiful films, his storytelling credentials are not in doubt..there was going to be a ‘but’ here but there is no ‘but’..he’s good, end of. He has a genuine love for his chosen subject matter and there is every chance that, by the end of one of his films, you will love it too. I barely knew the band Doctor Feelgood before I watched ‘Oil City Confidential’ but now I own their entire record output and cried genuine tears watching ‘The Ecstacy of Wilko Johnson’. Absolute Beginners is not Julien Temple’s biggest artistic success; not everyone buys what he is selling this time around.

Yeah, Absolute Beginners has its problems. It’s an 80s film from a director who has made a lot of music videos. If you don’t know what you are getting into it can seem strange..is this a normal film..am I watching a dance number right now? Ooh, that seems a little unlikely. That’s a big typewriter. No, this is not a normal film, yes, that is a dance number – yeah, there are fantasy elements. And yes, that is a bloody big typewriter and David Bowie is fucking dancing on it. Questions? Comments?

Spoiler Alert

The plot follows the usual lines: boy meets girl, boy falls in love, girl marries elderly homosexual, boy meets alien and turns into a proto-Thatcherite, boy gets drunk, boy gets high, boy rejects fascism, boy gets into a bit of a chase aided by a cactus-waving lesbian, boy gets girl.

The cast is amazing. A lot of very famous people clearly wanted to be a part of this film. Eric Sykes has a non-speaking part selling Colin and the Wizard a sandwich. Colin’s parents are Ray Davies and Mandy Rice-Davies. Sandy Shaw has one line as Baby Boom’s mum.

Eddie O’Connell plays Colin. Sadly this film and an advert in the early 1990s (I can’t remember what it was for but he’s standing in a hole in the road) seem to be the whole extent of his career and the geyser doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry, which seems a little harsh. Another who hasn’t made it to Wikipedia, which is odd as I remember her being in loads of things in the 1980s and 1990s, is Eve Ferret, who plays Big Jill.

Bruce Payne (who plays Flikker, not a nice chap but his is a burningly memorable performance) has notched up a good career and apparently was considered for the role of Batman in the Tim Burton films before Michael Keaton was cast. Bruce Payne as Bruce Wayne. Hmm.

You’ll be surprised by the famous faces and legendary musicians who crop up in Absolute Beginners. Slim Gaillard, for example. He’s mentioned in ‘On The Road’! His ‘Selling out’ is the highlight of the soundtrack of Absolute Beginners for me (sorry Dave).

Bowie’s contribution to the soundtrack is not restricted to the theme tune (check out this version of it here (it’s Bowie!): it is superb) but he also covers ‘Volare’ and ‘That’s Motivation’ is one of the film’s biggest numbers. His ever-changing accents may strike an odd note but for me they work, the character Vendice Partners is a fake, a charlatan and a thoroughly nasty piece of work who will pretend to be anything at all to get what he wants.

No doubt Absolute Beginners isn’t for everyone. Jazz purists may want to give it a miss. My boyfriend at the time found a copy of the soundtrack LP in a second-hand record shop. A previous owner had written ‘Absolute Buggers’ on it. Not happy with Smiley Culture’s take on ‘So What’, perhaps. I tried to lend my VHS of the film to a colleague who was a fan of Dirty Dancing (which I have never seen). She found Absolute Beginners to be unwatchable.

It all goes by very fast, no dull moments, beautiful technicolour (or it should have been). My Mum likes the film and says it takes her back (she was 18 years old in 1958, the year the film is set) although she grew up in Didcot so I don’t think she spent a lot of time pounding around Soho (you never know though, I’ll ask her). I felt quite choked up watching it again as it reminded me of my own youth (I was 17 in 1986, when Absolute Beginners came out). Like mother, like daughter I haven’t spent a lot of time in Soho either but the energy of the film, and its sheer beauty can’t be beaten for me.


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