Absolute Beginners is a love story. A boy and a girl fall in love, break up and then get back together again. Simple as that?
Well, not really.
Absolute Beginners is a musical. A British musical, but one made in the Hollywood tradition of Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris. It stars, among others, David Bowie, Ray Davies and Sade and was directed by Julien Temple, maker of scores of music videos as well as the Sex Pistols film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. Set in London in 1958, against the background of a long, hot summer, the Soho jazz scene and the U.K.’s first race riots, it has a soundtrack arranged by Gil Evans and songs contributed by representatives of 20 years of British pop. Simple as that?
Well, not exactly.
Take the scene early on, when the camera ushers us off the neon-sparkling, knife-glinting, finger-snapping streets of Temple’s idealized Soho and into the office of Tin Pan Alley mogul Harry Charms. There’s a lot packed in here, as in the rest of the movie. Charms, crisply played by British variety ham Lionel Blair, is the prototypal pop impresario, the kind who christens his stars according to their performance on the casting couch. His latest discovery is Baby Boom (Chris Pitt), a singing brat in gold lamé.
The two characters sum up the whole mainstream British music industry. Charms is clearly modeled on the late Larry Parnes, the manager who contrived the careers of such pre-Beatles pop idols as Marty Wilde, Billy Fury and Tommy Steele. But in the symbolic scheme of things, Charms stands for the entire British tradition of manipulative management, as much Malcolm McLaren or Brian Epstein as Parnes. And Baby Boom, bawling “You Never Had It So Good,” a song based on an old Conservative-party slogan, is every British-manufactured pop star who ever swiveled a hip or winged it across the Atlantic to conquer America.
Americans, says Temple, “have bought all the records for the last 25 years. I’d like them to understand a bit about why that energy existed in England.”
Absolute Beginners, then, is a film about British pop culture and where it came from. Simple as that, then?
Well, not quite.
Imagine a British cross between On the Road and Catcher in the Rye written by a middle-aged, gay George Orwell. That’s the novel Absolute Beginners, first published in 1959 and second in Colin MacInnes’s London trilogy (the others are City of Spades and Mr. Love and Justice). It’s the first-person account of the unnamed hero’s last summer as a teenager. (In the movie, he’s called Colin and is played by Eddie O’Connell.) The slim story is set around the narrator’s relationship with teen gold digger Crêpe Suzette (Patsy Kensit in the film); his horror at the 1958 race riots; and the lure of selling out as a developing youth culture realizes its commercial strength. But the novel’s real achievement is its sense of atmosphere: early teen talk, Soho jazz dives, the ghetto of Napoli (MacInnes’s name for Notting Hill), the whole of wide-eyed and awakening London. MacInnes seemed to have spotted certain essentials about the nature of the teen revolution earlier and more astutely than anyone else.
When the book was reprinted 20 years later, it immediately began to attract the attention of the post-punk crowd. Paul Weller, for example, promptly lifted the title for a Jam single. He and his cronies were soon treating the book like tablets from the mountain, hanging around in Soho coffee bars and calling themselves (to howls of derision offstage) the Cappuccino Cats.
The novel lent romantic history to a resurgent and self-conscious Soho, an area just beginning to bristle with bistros again. And its evocation of the late-Fifties jazz scene appealed to those pundits in The Face and elsewhere who have been predicting a British jazz revival every year since the turn of the decade. The Soho of the Eighties was becoming London’s film and media land, where those for whom punk was the good old days were just beginning to move into positions of power. And in the wake of punk, British teen-subculture culture was being dissected and declared dead.
Presiding over the post-mortem were researchers Peter York and Jon Savage, who, in 1981, began working on a documentary series, Teenage, for Granada television. The project was ultimately squelched, but not before Temple, who had come in to direct, had picked up Absolute Beginners. He decided to acquire the film rights and eventually approached an old friend, Steve Woolley, about producing.
Temple, then 29, and Woolley, 27, were – like the movie’s two leads, Eddie O’Connell and Patsy Kensit – beginners, but not absolutely. Both dated back to the days of punk, the long, hot summer of ’76, when riots erupted in Notting Hill for the first time since ’58. Woolley was involved with a now-legendary Sex Pistols gig at London’s Screen on the Green (where he was an usher). Temple had followed the Pistols around, filming clandestinely with cameras borrowed from the National Film School (where he was a student). The pair had known each other vaguely then, and their paths crossed increasingly over the years.
Woolley rose to become co-chairman of the Palace Group, which moved from film and video distribution to production with The Company of Wolves. He had been informed about Absolute Beginners by co-scriptwriter and music coordinator Don Macpherson, and he initially doubted that the first-person novel was filmable. Anyway, he was finding The Company of Wolves enough of a handful. Then Temple approached him just after that film finished production. Temple was breaking up with his business partner and producer, Michael Hamlyn. Would Woolley take Absolute Beginners on now? With The Company of Wolves out of the way and fired with confidence, Woolley said yes.
It took Woolley two hours to run through the four-year story of the film’s production when I met him last March. From his tales of budget crises, script rewrites, cutting-room battles and personality clashes, it’s clear that the pair’s inexperience allowed them to be out-maneuvered more than once. In the end, financing was put together from Virgin Pictures and Goldcrest Films in the U.K. and Orion in the U.S. The budget was 6.6 million pounds, large in British terms. A wet summer that delayed shooting on the outdoor set would bump the final cost up to more than 8 million pounds.
“Given the time, the energy and the hype surrounding this picture, there’s bound to be a certain level of disappointment,” says Woolley. “It’s only a film; it’s certainly not a masterpiece. But considering the pressures we had, I’m delighted with it.”
Rumor had it that if Absolute Beginners was a flop, Goldcrest would go under; the production company was responsible for such Oscar-winning British films as Chariots of Fire and Gandhi, but also for having to write off 10 million pounds last year on the debacle that was Revolution. And if Goldcrest went under, what remained of the British film industry would likely go with it. Woolley refuted the rumors.
“Absolute Beginners has already been pre-sold fairly heavily around the world,” he says. “The video alone is worth a lot of money. And even if Absolute Beginners were to absolutely flop, Goldcrest would still be out by at most, I imagine, 2 million pounds.”
(At press time, the movie had had the second all-time best opening weekend in London – Rocky IV had the best – taking in $89,390. In the United States, it had what weekly Variety described as a “very healthy start,” grossing $84,000 its first weekend in exclusive engagements in four cities.)
It is ironic that even if the future of the British film industry doesn’t depend on Absolute Beginners, the present of the British youth industry certainly seems to. The London media have been saturated with Absolute Beginners covers, pullout sections and TV specials.
Temple reflects sourly that one of the feats of the film is that it made Patsy Kensit a star before it was even released. Such a star that when the movie was released, Kensit and her management wouldn’t condescend to publicize it, even though her group, Eighth Wonder, hasn’t had anything approaching a big hit. But Temple is amused that his star is another Baby Boom. “I quite like that irony,” he says, smiling. “She definitely is packaged in that same way.” The sad truth behind all the hype is that right now, in London, there is virtually nothing happening. Not even Patsy Kensit.
If the making of Absolute Beginners made London seem small and miserable, the film itself makes London look large and magical. From the dizzying opening track shot through the streets and alleys, bars and clubs of Fifties Soho to the choreographed Notting Hill race riots at the close, Temple turns London into a rich, intense fantasy.
“My Lord, one thing is certain,” runs the novel’s most quoted line, “and that’s that they’ll make musicals one day about the glamour-studded 1950s.” Apart from that convenient prophecy, Julien Temple’s reasons for using the apparently dated, commercially risky and undeniably American form of the musical are obvious. First, without the involvement of pop stars, there would have been no way of getting the financing for a movie about British youth culture. Second, because of the video boom, Temple says, “there is an audience throughout the world who are used to ideas and stories being conveyed through people singing and dancing.
“I just love musicals,” he says. “They were the most popular form of cinema when they were vital and in touch with what people were concerned about. I think there is a possibility of using them in a fresh way where they can take darker, bleaker, blacker, comic social elements rather than just people singing, ‘I love you.'”
As for the musical being an American form, Temple says, “So was rock & roll. And we sold that back to America.”
“It’s not just a musical,” says Don Macpherson. “It borrows from all sorts of things: from a tradition of English satire, from Brecht and Weill, from surreal things.”
Is it, then, just like two hours of MTV, as many critics claim? Temple sighs. He’s obviously sick of this one.
“That is a very un-thought-out comment,” he snaps. “MTV is a series of songs that have no relation to each other. These are songs that do tell a story, so it is not MTV. It uses some of the energy of music video, which is what musicals are all about.”
But that very energy, whether it’s like a double dose of MTV or not, is also one of the movie’s principal problems. There’s just too much to take in at once. The patchwork nature of the soundtrack, for example, painstakingly but awkwardly put together long before the script was finished, tends to obscure the particular brilliance of individual contributions. Tracks like Sade’s “Killer Blow,” Bowie’s title song or much of Gil Evans’s first-ever film score nearly get lost in the kitchen-sink (everything but) approach.
Likewise with the themes of the movie: the nature of teen-dom, pop culture, style, fashion, immigration, racism, advertising, property development, the tensions of a society emerging from austere postwar gloom into a new American-inspired consumerism – all these are thrown into the pot but left unstirred. The problems are partly structural. Editing was hampered by a protracted postproduction battle, with Woolley and Temple in one corner and a nervous Goldcrest in the other. But they’re also the result of the incredible ambition of the project: the attempt to get it all in, come what may. There are so many different things in this film that it’s hard to say it’s about anything at all.
Still, over-ambition is the most endearing of faults. What it does mean is that Absolute Beginners is a movie that should improve with age.
Simple as that.