Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #59 Absolute Beginners (1986)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the career and site-sustaining column that gives YOU, the kindly, Christ-like, unbelievably sexy Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch, and then write about, in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for all subsequent choices.
One of the nice aspects of this column is that it has given me an excuse to re-watch and write about movies I’d been meaning to revisit for one reason or another. The maddeningly muddled 1986 Mod musical Absolute Beginners is a good example.
I first watched the film during my David Bowie-crazed teens, when I would ride my bike to the used record stores in Evanston and hunt for b-sides and rarities from my favorite British musical heroes.
That’s where I first encountered the Absolute Beginners soundtrack. I found a cassette in the dollar bin. I consequently fell in love with Absolute Beginners well before I had an opportunity to be underwhelmed and disappointed by the accompanying film.
When David Bowie died, a loss that I, and I alone, feel intensely EVERY SINGLE DAY, unlike you posers out there, I think I pitched Absolute Beginners to a few places alongside The Hunger, the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars motion picture and, of course, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Only Ziggy Stardust got any bites but I still considered writing up Absolute Beginners for My World of Flops, on account of it was a huge, high-profile critical and commercial flop at the time of its release as well as for Sub-Cult 2.0, since it has all the elements of a cult movie, including a cult following.
Absolute Beginners has a cult pedigree in the form of Colin McInnes’ beloved, influential 1959 novel, which inspired the title of cult favorites the Jam’s 1981 single of the same name. It boasted a cult auteur in the form of Julien Temple, whose resume includes such cult treasures as his wildly subversive, satirical debut, 1980’s The Great Rock N Roll Swindle, 1988’s Earth Girls Are Easy and a pair of very well-received documentaries about The Sex Pistols and The Clash in 2000’s The Filth and the Fury and 2007’s Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten.
If that weren’t enough to make Absolute Beginners a cult classic, regardless of quality, it also boasts a cast full of cult heroes, including Ray Davies as the protagonist’s salt of the earth, working class father, James Fox as a gay fashion designer who marries our hero’s ex-girlfriend, Sade as a gorgeous crooner and most excitingly, and disappointingly David Bowie, who also contributes the film’s terrific theme song.
But none of the movie’s can’t-miss elements miss quite as hard, or as spectacularly, as its rich, fertile, fatally under-explored cultural milieu.
Absolute Beginners takes place in the richly multi-cultural melting pot of late 1950s London, a bristling, exciting cultural and commercial hub witnessing something unique in the history of the western world: the birth of the teenager as a creative, cultural and economic force.
Eddie O’Connell stars as Colin, one of these magical, suddenly valued and pandered-to creatures, a teenaged photographer with an unparalleled eye for capturing the excitement, glamour and sexiness of big city life in the final years of the 1950s.
Like seemingly everyone else in London, Colin is helplessly in love with Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit), a ragingly ambitious social-climber who will do anything to make it to the top, even if it means abandoning her deeply tedious sometimes boyfriend.
In the novel Temple and his screenwriters watered down and white-washed for the sake of a PG-13 rating, Suzette is into black men sexually but the closest the film comes to broadcasting her sexual preference is having her dance seductively with several black men in a production number to the horror of wealthy white dowager types.
Colin runs with a diverse but uniformly under-developed crew that includes Mr. Cool (Tony Hippolyte), the black guy, who earned his name by virtue of being a really cool black guy, the Fabulous Hoplite (Joe McKenna), the token cool gay guy, Big Jill (Eve Ferret), the token lesbian and Graham Fletcher-Cook as The Wizard, a bad seed who first becomes a pimp and then gets involved with UK-style fascism.
Colin’s explosive, albeit unlikely-seeming talent makes him a much sought-after commodity in the youth culture and capitalism-crazed London of 1958.
Vendice Partners, an advertising mogul David Bowie plays as a sharply dressed, ruthlessly pragmatic cross between Don Draper and Satan, wants Colin to sacrifice some of his vaunted integrity for the sake of helping him and his evil cronies make money by any means necessary.
The presence of David Bowie, one of the most charismatic human beings ever to grace the earth with his presence only highlights the glaring charisma vacuum at the center of the film. It doesn’t help that Bowie shows up when the film is already nearly half over, dominates the proceedings for ten minutes then disappears completely.
When Bowie’s ice-blooded shark tells the tedious tool O’Connell so forgettably plays that no one can deny his incredible star-power and magnetism it comes off as bitterly, violently sarcastic. David Bowie. Now there is a man with star-power. There is a man with magnetism. There is a dude you could look at for eternity and never get bored. O’Connell, in sharp contrast, is just the kid ruining Absolute Beginners with his hopelessly bland central presence.
Re-watching Absolute Beginners was a real trip down memory lane, as I was re-introduced to songs that once took up prime real estate in my teenaged brain but that I haven’t even thought about in decades, let alone listened to.
I was pleased to discover that I still love the music of Absolute Beginners. It’s everything around it that is the problem. Yet for its first forty minutes or so Absolute Beginners is a breezy delight.
Temple, then a hotshot music video director with a cinephile brain and frame of reference, plays up the artifice and theatricality, transforming late 1950s London into a boldly colored MGM sound stage full of singing, dancing extras in cartoonish garb.
Temple is taking inspiration from classic musicals from the 1940s and 50s but also the Day-Glo, consumerism-obsessed satirical world of Frank Tashlin, who enlivened the Eisenhower decades with treasures like Hollywood or Bust, The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
Since the first half of the film is largely concerned with Colin selling out in a desperate bid to make the money and achieve the status that might win him the heart of a pragmatic beauty seemingly willing to auction off her affections to the highest bidder, Will Success Spoil Colin? would be an appropriate alternate title for the film.
Absolute Beginners explores fascinating subject matter and a riveting milieu from the least compelling possible perspective: a boring white guy surrogate for the author. This proves particularly problematic in the film’s third act, when the fun and games cease and rising racial and generational conflict explodes in a race riot.
The story of Absolute Beginners should be a dazzlingly inclusive, multi-cultural one. It’s a story of black and white, immigrant and native, gay and straight, male and female.
So why tell this story exclusively through the prism of a bland white dude coming of age and hooking back up with his straight white ex-girlfriend? The answer obviously has a lot to do with the source material but also with commerce. A movie with white protagonists was inherently a safer bet commercially back in 1986 and also today than a movie with black leads but Absolute Beginners would instantly become a much deeper, richer, more substantive experience if it were told from the perspective of a person of color.
Also, it would solve one of the movie’s biggest, most unforgivable crimes, which is taking a black story, or a story of black and white tension and unrest, and reducing nearly all of the black characters, with the exception of the tellingly named Mr. Cool, to extras, to background, to dancing bit players grooving their way through a real bummer of a race riot.
The fun, retro hyper-stylization that lends so much life and energy to the early scenes begins to feel tasteless and tone-deaf when applied to real-life racial violence. Though it came out decades later, Absolute Beginners makes the violence in West Side Story seem brutal and hyper-realistic by comparison.
At its best, Absolute Beginners captures the energy and excitement of late 1950s London, when a fabulous new breed of human being known as the teenager took advantage of the exhilarating and terrifying new freedoms of the day to find themselves and their tribes against a glamorous, exciting backdrop of violence, tension, art and unrest.
In its early going, it’s a movie in love with music, with pop art and pop culture, with the promise of youth, with old musicals and retro trends and the fashions and freshness of London at its very coolest.
Then it turns into the story of how a real-life incident that primarily affected London’s vulnerable immigrant Afro-Caribbean population freaked out a deeply bland white dude and the sex kitten he’s hung up on.
After spending much of the film apart, Colin and Crepe Suzette are so turned on by the race riot that they resume their sexual relationship. Apparently the most important ramification of the Notting Hill race riots involved making Colin and Crepe Suzette want to travel to the bone zone together, for the sake of fucking, after being separated by fate and circumstance and also her loveless marriage of convenience.
It turns out that you cannot make The Girl Can’t Help It and Do the Right Thing at the same time. Absolute Beginners is consequently a film powerfully divided against itself, a fizzy, dizzy, cartoonish tribute to the birth of the teenager that then shifts gears ever so slightly to deal with a deadly explosion of real-life racial violence and urban unrest.
I went into Absolute Beginners prepared to love it the way I adored Earth Girls Are Easy the second time around. I was hoping that I’d be able to overlook everything that had annoyed me during my initial viewing and lock into the elements of the film that not only work but work spectacularly well, like the music, the impressionistic sets and David Bowie’s wonderful, if all too brief supporting turn.
I also imagined that the film’s emphasis on immigration, racism, racial violence, the rise of Fascism in a country that takes entirely too much pride in defeating Fascism in World War II and LGTBQ issues would lend it a striking contemporary resonance. Nope. This should vibrate with timeliness and meaning. Instead it feels weirdly irrelevant despite the hot-button issues at play.
I was dismayed to discover that the fifteen year old me that rented Absolute Beginners on VHS as part of my obsession with Bowie was mostly right. For all of its strengths, the film is just too goddamned white, straight and muddled to recommend. But the forty-three year old me was also right about Absolute Beginners having too much going for it to dismiss outright.
I wanted to love Absolute Beginners, to embrace it in all its messiness but that ultimately proved impossible. To put things in My World of Flops terms, I wanted it to be a Secret Success but it has way too many screamingly public shortcomings for to qualify for that deeply meaningful rating.
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