Absolute Beginners (1986, Julien Temple)

Absolute Beginners, the David Bowie song, is so good Absolute Beginners, this Julien Temple directed musical film adaptation of Colin MacInnes’s presumably autobiographical novel would have to be singular to be better than the song.

Okay, singular in a good way.

Because I suppose Beginners, which Temple stages as a Technicolor stage production, is singular in a bad way. The film’s never too far away from its next bad decision, like having Bowie—who also cameos on screen as one of the few people who can actually sing the songs, otherwise it’s unimaginative lip-syncing from leads Patsy Kensit (at least, I hope she’s lip-syncing) and Eddie O’Connell. As far as the dance numbers… well, whoever Temple and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton had running the Steadicam did a great job, but they’re not good. Temple composes all of his shots for what seems to be eventual pan-and-scan, so there’s empty space on half the screen, either on the sides or on one side. Not good for the dance direction. Though I suppose the scale of the production is impressive.

Beginners takes place in the late 1950s, when it was more pragmatic for white London youth to be progressive and live and hang out with the marginalized—because cheap rents, but it still did lead to personal growth. O’Connell likes the working class melting pot, Kensit wants stability so much she’s willing to marry old gay fashion designer James Fox so she can be a kept woman.

Now, Beginners Technicolor dancing melting pot includes a lot of gay folks and O’Connell always seems more anti-homophobic than anti-racist (eventually it’s going to turn out he was just too busy trying to be a teen heartthrob to notice the subtle hints of a white terror organization in his photographs but also because he didn’t talk to his one Black friend, Tony Hippolyte, about Bruce Payne and his sidekicks burning down buildings)—but there’s a lot of digs at Fox for being a gay guy pretending to be straight so he could have a business in 1958. He’s a villain, sure, but… the last thing Beginners ever needs to do is come off more white. Especially once the film decides it’s going to do race riot as musical number.

Other bad choices… Bowie’s accent. I got lost in the other rotting weeds of the film but Bowie’s accent. Wow. It’s a fake American accent looped in, so there’s an added level of unreality to it. It’s such a profound move, I suppose whether or not Bowie is good or bad isn’t an answerable question. Is he effective?

No. But it’s not his fault. They stunt cameoed him in a bad part.

The film’s at its best—so it takes about an hour—in the studio-built streets where O’Donnell, Hippolyte, and Payne collide for the big race riot musical number third act. Beginners has four editors, but only the one or ones who worked on the third act managed to establish any kind of pace. Otherwise it’s jerky, with O’Donnell’s unwelcome narration popping in. At first I thought it was Bowie doing it from old age, which would bring some personality.

Instead, it’s O’Donnell, who’s absent personality, which it turns out isn’t the worst. Kensit’s got some personality but it’s all bad. Bowie doesn’t have any because of the dubbing, though Anita Morris isn’t dubbed and she doesn’t have any either. Lionel Blair does but it’s potentially problematic personality. Steven Berkoff’s cameo as a British Hitler wannabe is easily Temple’s best direction of an actor in the film, which is certainly something.

The Sade cameo—she sings a number—is easily the best musical bit outside the opening and closing use of Absolute Beginners, though the finale action is so bad it would’ve been better to hold the song for the end credits.

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