Absolute Beginners (1986)

Drama, Fantasy, Musical
Patsy Kensit, Eddie O'Connell, David Bowie, James Fox
A musical adaptation of Colin MacInnes' novel about life in late 1950s London. Nineteen-year-old photographer Colin is hopelessly in love with model Crepe Suzette, but her relationships are...
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  • HBO Video Company:
  • PG-13 Rated:
  • IMDB link IMDB:
  • 18 Apr 1986 Released:
  • 15 Apr 2003 DVD Release:
  • N/A Box office:
  • Richard Burridge, Michael Hamlyn (developer), Terr Writer:
  • Julien Temple Director:
  • N/A Website:

All subtitles:

Trailer:

A Very British, Pre-"Moulin Rouge" Extravaganza10/10
Julien Temple's "Absolute Beginners" is probably more well known for it's breathtaking and legendary opening tracking shot through a gloriously campy backlot version of London's SoHo District (so influential it even served as an in-joke in Robert Altman's "The Player") AND for the film's behind-the-scenes B.O. failure both at home (where it was trumped up as to herald the coming of the "new" British cinema) and abroad. But upon a fresh look in the days after the visual assault of "Moulin Rouge" and the puffery of "Chicago", smarter DVD viewers will certainly (hopefully) now find "Absolute Beginners". MGM's timing couldn't be more perfect: the film should find an audience that has caught up with the form, patient enough to sit through the razzle-dazzle with a cast that frequently, joyously, breaks into song when the moment is right.

Director Temple - he of the Sex Pistols' "The Great Rock And Roll Swindle", "Earth Girls Are Easy" and a career of 80's short and long-form rock videos - takes what was a very-dead movie genre and breathes life into a freewheelingly complex - perhaps overreaching - story of "England's First Teenagers". The idea is pure Temple: pop art, pop culture and commercialism all served up in a beautiful, thoughtful package if as inherently artificial as the people and era it documents. The film crosses classic kitchen-sink drama and the dreamy ambition of the "youth" pictures of the day - albeit with a knowingly 80's sensibility.

"Absolute Beginners" follows its two young "teen" stars - amateur photographer Eddie O'Connell and the lovely Patsy Kensit as a neophyte fashion designer - as they discover that their blooming talents put them in the right-place-right-time of late 50's London, and that these same talents are a highly desired and marketable currency in the pop idol-crazed Blighty. All of the "adults" in the film (David Bowie as a oily American marketing guru and James Fox as a foppish and callous fashionista are standouts) are the force out to co-opt and corrupt our two young lovers, and their love does get called into question in the pursuit of success and the almighty British Sterling. A sub-plot of sorts involving nasty Steven Berkoff ("Beverly Hills Cop") wedging a "Keep England White" racial cleansing of the soddy London White City ghettos coldly highlights the cultural plasticness of the navelgazing fad-frenzy time, which leads to the film's firey denouement.

And this is a musical! But what a musical it is: each of the picture's numbers is a virtual showstopper set-piece. There's Ray Davies of "The Kinks" as a Landlord in an awesome "Quiet Life" eye-popper that features the Brit-Rock legend chasing his boarders through an artificial three-level house all the while singing and soft-shoeing up a storm; the formerly mentioned Bowie's "That's Motivation!" a hilarious lesson on the evils of mass-marketing; and a wild Jamaican-Jazz fusion fashion show that Kensit makes all her own. The film's musical director was the late Gil Evans, and his contribution gives this film a classy, thoughtful pedigree that the story tries very hard to match. Watch for Sade Adu, Robbie Coltrane, Anita Morris and Mandy Rice-Davies in bit parts.

Yes, the film's serious reach hardly exceeds its glitzy grasp, but it's difficult to fault a movie that attempts to exhume the movie musical, tries to tell a overly complicated tale in which people still break into song, crams the edges of its widescreen aspect ratio in energetic cinematography, colorful scenery and engaging performances by its leads, PLUS offers a great jazzy soundtrack and kicky musical numbers.

A great double bill with this title would be the Cliff Richard artifact, "The Young Ones".
Much Better than Expected....5/10

With the great era of musicals long past, it was interesting to see how stylized & clever this little "musical" film really was.

The story line was nil, but then great musicals don't need one, anyway. --Not to say that this was a "great musical", but the music WAS pretty good, and the film's use of thoughtful & colorful sets was stunning.


The camera movement, the scene changes, the hypnotic (almost psychedelic) fades, and the simply dazzling use of color, more than made up for the silly dialog and tripey sub-plots.

All in all, a good looking, well-mounted, and (except for the ending) enjoyable experience. The fast pace of the dream-like musical sequences made this a much better film than I had anticipated seeing.

I rated it 9, -mostly for sets, color, music, costumes, & photography.
I like this one!5/10

First, I must respectfully disagree with the other reviewer who hated this movie. It has a complex set of plot lines that deal with a number of issues revolving around the lives of a young up-and-coming "pop photographer", and his love interest -- played by Patsy Kensit. Then, there is the "old queen" (also an unscrupulous real estate developer) who marries Patsy. Now, add to that the ad agency aspect (David Bowie's song and dance routine to "Selling Out" is a classic), plus the racial tensions in 1950's or 1960's London, and you have a multi-layered plot tapestry.

Personally, I don't mind that David Bowie is only in the movie for ten minutes -- I am a fan of Bowie, but this is really not "his movie".
Exhilarating Adrenalin Rush5/10

What a Corker of a movie which moves at a lightning pace of youth in the 1950's based on the youth culture book by Colin McInnes. We see the birth of the teenager in Britain wiping away the grey cobwebs of post war Britain and revitalising it with a kaleidoscope of colour. Eddie O'Donnell is the spunky immaculately dressed hedonist who wants to dance and carouse the night away in Swinging London and Patsy Kensit's film debut is superb as Colin'ns(O'Donnel's) sex kitten who's a real temptress. The music score is excellent which interwines with the plot very well and some of London's well known honey pots are featured, like The Wag Club which is sadly no more. Ray Davies actually appears in the film, as does David Bowie and Sade.Not forgetting the great songs by The Style Council and Smiley Culture with an underlying jazz groove by Gil Evans. The Introduction to this movie is one of the best ever and features a cast of thousands. Congratulations Julian Temple on this aesthetic musical delight.
Unjustly overlooked 80's musical9/10

I had just graduated high school(in California) when this movie came out, in the summer of 1986. Given the heavy promotion given it by MTV(I believe they had a contest whose winner would appear in the film, though I may have remembered that wrong), and given that David Bowie, whose music career was on the upswing, had a starring role(along with a mix of musicians like veteran Ray Davies(of the Kinks) and newcomer Sade), you'd expect the movie would be a hit. Instead, it barely made a dent in America(in their year-end issue, Rolling Stone called it one of the hype jobs of the year), and seems to have been largely forgotten(though in an interview with Rolling Stone about a year later, Bowie claimed it was a cult hit). In fact, while star Patsy Kensit has had an erratic career, Bowie continued to make music and the occasional movie, and director Julien Temple, after this and EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY, went back to his forte, music videos, it's sort of ironic that the most successful person to come from that movie is Robbie Coltrane(TV's CRACKER), who only had a small role here.

Why am I boring you all with this? Because ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS is one of the unsung classics of the 80's. Of course, having grown up on old-time musicals(my dad was a fan), I'm probably more receptive to them than the average person seems to be today, but this is one of the best ones of the last two decades. Not only are all the numbers well-written and well sung(in addition to Bowie, Davies, and Sade, jazz great Gil Evans wrote the instrumental score, and Style Council contributes a song. Also, female lead Patsy Kensit sings one, while male lead Eddie O'Connell lip-syncs his numbers), they're also imaginatively staged. A good example is "Motivation," one of two numbers Bowie sings(the other being the title song), which includes parodies of Busby Berkley-type numbers. There's also a wicked parody of teen pop.

As for the story, Temple has the fine novel to fall back on(by Colin MacInnes), and while there's probably too many ideas trying to burst out(teen alienation, racism, "Selling Out"(the name of another song), he juggles them all with finesse. And the cast handles things with aplomb, with the exception of, surprisingly, Bowie; while he's appropriately super-smooth as the oily executive, his voice(intended to be an American accent?) is annoying. But O'Connell and Kensit are both fresh and appealing, Anita Morris and James Fox both play well in their typecast roles(as, respectively, a sexpot gossip columnist and an effete fashion designer), there's a nice turn by Mandy Rice-Davies(who, you may remember, was in real life involved in the Profumo scandal), and a host of others in small but memorable parts(the ones I can remember are Steven Berkoff(BEVERLY HILLS COP) and Bruce Payne(PASSENGER 57) as fascists, and Paul Rhys(VINCENT AND THEO) as a mod). All in all, well worth tracking down.