Thursday, 21 July 2016

Absolute Beginners (1986)

Julien Temple’s colourful mid-1980s British movie musical gets a sparkling Blu-ray and DVD release courtesy of Second Sight.

London, 1958. Struggling photographer Colin (Eddie O’Connell) is going out with Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit). Crepe (actually, nobody ever calls her that) is an aspiring fashion designer working for Henley (James Fox). 

When she revolutionises hemlines by taking them up rather than down (and engaging in one of the movie’s many dance numbers while going about it) she leaves Colin for the promise of Paris and as much James Fox as she would like (ie none at all, really).

In order to win her back, Colin decides to compromise his idealism by getting a job with pop promoter Lionel Blair. Along the way he has entrepreneur David Bowie sing to him from a giant typewriter, gets to meet fascist lunatic Steven Berkoff in full fascist lunatic Steven Berkoff mode, and gets involved in the Notting Hill race riots before he manages to save the girl from Henley (who turns out not to be that interested in girls anyway) and have her to himself. 

A brave move by a small British film company whenever it might have been made, but especially in the cinematic doldrums that was the UK industry in the mid-1980s, time has been very kind indeed to the ambitious, colourful spectacle that is ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS. I reviewed the BFI's new Blu-ray of Val Guest's energetic, slightly bizarre late 1950s Soho odyssey EXPRESSO BONGO on here a while back, and if you liked that movie, you'll like this. 

ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS certainly has things wrong with it (you really need actors like Gillian Hills and Oliver Reed to carry the lead roles) but there’s so much right that the movie’s 108 minute running time just flies by. 

The 'right' things include some great songs (including the cracking main title theme by David Bowie as well as Ray Davies’ mordantly witty Quiet Life), amazing sets, daring photography, buckets of cameos for those who want them, and above all a radiantly glowing depiction of city life that British cinema sadly seems rarely capable of achieving. 

Second Sight’s disc comes with a new 53-minute documentary courtesy of David Gregory and Severin Films. It’s absolutely worth a watch, featuring interviews with writer-director Temple, Palace Pictures boys Nik Powell and Stephen Woolley, DP Oliver Stapleton, production designer John Beard, and actors Eddie O’Connell and Ed Tudor-Pole (but no Patsy Kensit). 

The story of the film’s financing, production and the aftermath will probably hold few surprises for anybody familiar with the crazy world of film production but it’s nice to see that at least all those interviewed here seem to have come through the experience relatively unscathed.

ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS left a lot of viewers non-plussed back in 1986, and I have to admit I was one of them. Too young and too used to cinema fare like ALIENS, TOP GUN and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, I hadn’t grown up enough, seen enough or read enough to appreciate just how very good, and how very special, Julien Temple’s debut feature is. ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS is a remarkable, flamboyant, daring, and quite marvellous film, and Second Sight’s presentation shows it at its best. 

Julien Temple's ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS is out on Blu-ray and DVD from Second Sight on Monday 25th July 2016

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