Absolute Beginners (Blu-ray Review)29 Jun, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Eddie O’Connell, Patsy Kensit, David Bowie, James Fox.
The movie whose box office returns finally sank Goldcrest Films of Chariots of Fire and Gandhi renown probably bites off more late-1950s London turmoil than it can chew — which is, relatively speaking, to its credit, given the dearth of daringly ambitious screen entertainments from the mid-1980s. This was a time when every other screen wannabe seemed to be a) under the homogenized influence of Spielberg; or b) weekly variations on the Weird Science blueprint when both kiddie and teen audiences were in charge of pop culture (not that things have changed). Fittingly, a key theme in Beginners is the emerging teen market in Britain when it was first manifesting itself in the United States as well, what with Hollywood B’s like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (and, giving equal time, Frankenstein), Teenage Cavemen and Teenagers From Outer Space. (Just a few years ago, a close friend of mine — a former Big Ten Homecoming queen — looked at me solemnly over a glass of wine and said, “I want to be a teenager from outer space.”)
But Absolute Beginners is still one of a kind. You have, of course, previously seen the story about young lovers getting corrupted and thus romantically foiled on their way to a happy ending — though probably not with David Bowie in a severely sculpted haircut (very cool) dancing against the production designer/prop department’s oversized typewriter that’s straight out of The Incredible Shrinking Man (which is just out on a Region B Blu-ray, by the way).
The portrayal of Brit sociopolitical upheaval on racial and sexual levels definitely makes Beginners an alternative to "Downton Abbey" — and even an alternative to those angry working-class heroes from England’s wave-making “kitchen sink” movies that launched around the same time as the era it portrays. Lead Eddie O’Connell’s situation doesn’t seem to have much to do with the one faced by, say, by working-class bloke Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, though both young men are struggling to escape humble straits. Of course, everything in front of still photographer O’Connell’s eyes (and camera lens) is decidedly urban, and the boss-men who try to rule him as they exploit that burgeoning teen-entertainment market have little in common with the factory manager whose chain Finney is always pulling.
Patsy Kensit (pre-Lethal Weapon 2) plays a pert, wannabe fashion designer who travels with a snobbishly fast nightclubbing crowd that’s too rich for the blood of equally photogenic on-and-off squeeze O’Connor. When the latter pays a visit to a rooming house (run by his parents) that seems to be heavy on body-builders, we see that broken-down dad (Ray Davies of the Kinks, with that unmistakable voice) is subordinate to tart-ish mom, who frolics around the musclemen as if she’d enjoy being bench-pressed. Of all possible actresses cast to play her, it’s (the recently deceased) Mandy Rice-Davies, whose notoriety sprang from the early-1960s, sex-centered empire shaker that involved Brit government official John Profumo (Rice-Davies was the party girl Bridget Fonda played in Scandal, 1989’s big-screen remembrance of the affair). Scandal. These family digs and their run-down neighborhood in general provide an environment that can’t help O’Connell’s chances — with Kensit or the smoothies she hangs around with (Bowie and the mincing designer she marries, almost inevitably played by James Fox).
Eventually, racial tensions and even rioting find their way into the story, adapted from a Colin MacInnes novel that had a following. As a result of this and other by-ways, the movie’s final chapters, in particular, come to seem overstuffed. But director Julien Temple (The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle and a bounty of music videos) knows his away around the material, and the production design by John Beard (thanks to Julie Kirgo’s Twilight Time liner notes for alerting me that he almost immediately went on to do The Last Temptation of Christ) offer a rejoinder to the old canard that no one ever goes to the movie for the sets. If they don’t, they should, at least in this case – yowza!
Gil Evans supervised the music, which has me right there (I frequently drive to work listening to his Miles Davis albums). And indeed, this is a case where the orchestrations and stunning visuals combine for a more than occasional mesmerizing experience, though I’d be lying if I didn’t opine that the actual storytelling could have used another draft or six. This is a year when Goldcrest’s best picture Oscar nomination went to soulless The Mission, for God’s sake, when here were Temple & Co. giving us herky-jerky excitement but excitement nonetheless. You can almost get stoned watching the Sade number again, even if you’re only ingesting (as I was the other night) pistachios.