A word of appreciation for Absolute Beginners

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…

What I thought of Julien Temple’s Glastonbury film

Last time I mentioned that 2006 was to be a fallow year for Glastonbury Festival, but that wasn’t going to mean nothing for fans of the festival to enjoy. 2006 was the year Julien Temple’s Glastonbury was released,

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This was another attempt to put the festival onto the cinema screen but this was the first attempt to do a full retrospective documentary after Glastonbury Fayre and Glastonbury: The Movie.  I’ll discuss those other two films another time in order to concentrate on this documentary.

Glastonbury was to fill the gap of the fallow year, as well as providing the sort of history of the festival that’d not really been seen in cinema, though anyone spending more than five minutes on Youtube will easily find various BBC and Channel 4 documentaries about the festival and Michael Eavis of varying quality. This though was by Julien Temple, a filmmaker I’d admire since seeing The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle at a seedy cinema in Renfield Street in Glasgow in the early 1980’s. After that I’d recognise his work and on the whole, enjoy most of it. Hell, I even don’t mind Absolute Beginners, which does have one of the best openings in a film in the 1980’s and spawned the best David Bowie song of the 80’s as well.

So to say the idea of marrying Temple with Glastonbury Festival seemed a natural fit, plus Temple seemed keen to portray the aspects of the festival the official website skimmed over and the newer breed of festival goers who started coming post-Superfence ignored. I was expecting a rounded, nuanced picture of something that as I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, I’d loved since first hearing about it in the 1980’s and mainly it’s what I got though there’s problems with the film. I’ll get to that throughout this piece.

The film has several narratives so one is a history of Glastonbury as an area and how the Festival grew out of the history of the area, another is of Michael Eavis, another is of various groups of people’s festival experience over the weekend,  and another is of pure documentary which is made up of vox pops which is the most frustrating narrative in the film. this is mainly because some of the people being interviewed aren’t very interesting, but Temple at least makes the selection of people varied as opposed to interview students with zaneee hats.

There’s also the fact it’s a music film so there’s lots of footage of acts playing from over the years threaded throughout the film. Some of the musical choices are, well, terrible but the DVD at least gave you the option to avoid the likes of David Grey. The problem is that the narratives don’t blend well at times so they end up jarring, but when Temple gets the film working (as he does for example during an electric sequence featuring Joe Strummer) it’s perfection, but it’s patchy. What is interesting is that Temple’s thrown in a few cliches, but he presents them as such before moving onto discussing them. I’m mainly of course talking about the mud. That cliche the tabloids and the media in general love talking about as if that’s all the festival has to offer.

The film starts with a group of young people getting ready in the wee hours to drive to the festival and this group is the main group we follow thoughout the film, though others do occasionally pop up depending upon what aspect of the festival Temple wants to talking about. This leads into a brief history of Glastonbury as an area which leads into an introduction to Michael Eavis and the story of how he’s almost singlehandedly kept the festival going throughout some rough times before it firmly became the establishment event it is in 2014, or indeed as it became around 2004 or 2005.

Glastonbury proceeds to then mix this story of how Eavis started the festival to make a bit of extra money to supplement his farming, with how a weekend would unfold for festival goers from the moment they arrive laden with tents, sleeping bags, beers, etc to their antic on the site, to them enjoying (or not enjoying) acts, to them leaving. These two threads are far the most interesting but the need to pepper various songs from various acts in it breaks it up badly at times, but this is obviously to satisfy the film’s commercial needs to help sell it overseas. It is however immensely distracting and on the few occasions it does work (the use of Nick Cave, Pulp and Bowie are prime examples) it works brilliantly.

It isn’t Temple’s best film (that would be the astonishing The Filth and the Fury) but it is entertaining for people who love Glastonbury, though someone looking at the film with little or no knowledge of the festival could be excused for being a wee bit lost but this is a great potted history of the event and what it means to people as it’s not just a big gig in a field as it’s often made out to be by the likes of the BBC and The Guardian.

There’s still a place in cinema for a Glastonbury related film that really captures a weekend along the lines of Michael Wadleigh’s splendid Woodstock, but perhaps the time for that has past. So until the next effort, Temple’s film will stand as the best attempt, even if it does have David Grey in it.

I Absolutely Love You

Right now on BBC Four there’s a collection of David Bowie videos and performances which frankly is filling my poor wee heart with joy at a time when my poor wee heart needs filling with joy.

One thing I need to do is point out how the song Absolute Beginners isn’t just my favourite Bowie song of the 1980’s, but one of my favourite ever songs. It might be the lovely Julien Temple video which more than ever makes me long for a London, long, long gone that still existed up until the late 1980’s, early 1990’s. It’s the fact the song drips with the sort of emotion a person of any age can identify with. It’s the fact it’s the best thing to come out of a film that’s a total pile of shite.

No, Absolute Beginners is as far as I’m concerned the definitive love song of the 1980’s. It’s a song anyone else would kill to have written but Bowie put it out at a time when frankly, he was at a creative low so do do this song at that time is a remarkable feat.

So join with me and enjoy…….