Back in 1986 the director Julien Temple directed the film adaptation of Absolute Beginners; originally a book about life in London one summer in 1958. It helped bankrupt one British studio, Goldcrest, and was instantly declared such a bomb that it’s rarely spoken about apart from ‘5 worst films ever’ type clickbait articles online., however the theme song by David Bowie is the only thing to really survive.
Part of the hate the film produced was the decision to turn the book into a musical, not to mention the charisma-free relationship between the two miscast leads (Patsy Kensit and Eddie O’Connell) and the fact the book was toned down. The film also has little sense of pace & the tone flits from weird British comedy to intense racial politics on a penny, plus those musical numbers stop the film dead even if some (like the Ray Davis one) are actually superb.
In short it deserves the reputation for being a mess and in places it is pretty awful, but, there’s one of the best opening shots you’ll see in a film as Temple guides the camera in one shot giving us a guided tour of the recreation of 50’s Soho. There’s the production design which stands up as being part faithful, part idealised and of course some of the musical numbers are great. When the film clicks, I get what the filmmakers were trying to do and sure, the sometimes clunking acting, or the black hole of the central relationship comes back to punch you in the face in regards the bad side but something comes along shortly after to make you pine as to what it could have been, especially at the end during the Notting Hill race riots.
As a film it doesn’t deserve the hate its built up as there’s clearly far, far worse out there, but certain films become punching bags and Absolute Beginners is one of them. The film’s one big positive legacy though remains the theme song which is one of the greatest themes a film could have, which seeing as it came at a time in the 80’s when David Bowie wasn’t exactly at the top of his game (to say the least) for him to pull out a song which seriously gets better every time it’s heard is nothing short of genius.
When I saw Bowie perform the song at Glastonbury in 2000, it was nothing short of perfect. Standing there in a crowd of people transfixed hearing and seeing people moved by a song from a film that’s a third shit, a third weird genius and third all over the place and is now mainly forgotten is not an experience ever to be forgot.
So give the film another chance, or if you’ve never seen it watch it for what it is which is an ambitious, weird oddity with a brilliant opening, some great moments and one of the best songs of all time.
Have a look…