Monday, July 27, 2015


Since the musical hasn't been in the best of health since sometime in the 1950s, it is always tempting to regard any subsequent work in the genre as someone's attempt to resurrect it. ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS (1986), released this week by Twilight Time at $29.95, is a very flashily designed musical about life in 1958 London, when the city was poised to become the center of the pop cultural universe for the next decade. Directed by MTV video veteran Julien Temple, who also had the Sex Pistols opus THE GREAT ROCK & ROLL SWINDLE (1980) behind him, it's one of those aggressively visual films that surprise you, as you go looking through it for frame grabs, because it's almost impossible to find a shot that looks well composed. Rather, it's a film of constant movement, unexpected shifts of image and combinations of color, and lots of brassy music and bold maneuvers. It doesn't give the viewer time for anything to sink in, perhaps because it doesn't want to be caught at not being anywhere near as smart as its layering looks.

You certainly can't argue with its architectural ambition - which it announces with an early sustained take showpiece that unfolds over several minutes on a preposterously detailed, surreal recreation of a London area that puts the faux New York sets in Stanley Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT to shame - but the story is so slight (two teenage lovers, a photographer and his model, grow in different directions till they find each other again), it's like a sundae heavily piled on top of a cherry. Although the story would seem to be about heartbreak and all the other teenage emotions, nearly all the performances maintain an ironical, winky-winky distance from any real emotion - save hate, which is conjured up vividly enough when the picture takes a third-act turn toward Teddy Boy violence and incendiary race rioting. The opening narration and general enterprising attitude of the piece prepare us for anything but the plunge into ugly realism we get. Along the way, the pleasured eye makes apologetic excuses, urging us to forgive the rest - the actors are good-looking, the sets are impressive, the whole thing is technically impeccable - but it's annoyingly evident that Temple had nothing much to say, just the opportunity to say it.

Now we come to the first of the "buts." When David Bowie turns up, about halfway through the picture, he provides a welcome distraction from the piling disappointment - and also something of an unwelcome relief map, pointing out to us that the two leads (Eddie O'Connell and Patsy Kensit) really aren't all that good-looking or interesting. Looking like the proverbial Man of Bronze, Bowie's small part in the film includes the most inspired filmmaking in the picture, a musical number that shows what a marvelous addition he would have been to MGM in its heyday; you can't look away from him and he moves with both grace, style and imperative. (Alas, the spoken side of his performance gives no hint of the fine actor he could be under other circumstances.) There is also a nightclub scene with a performance by Sade that is very enticing. These are a far and happier cry from an elaborate yet embarrassingly bad number featuring The Kinks' Ray Davies, staged inside a bisected rooming house set constructed à la THE LADIES' MAN. Davies plays the henpecked father of our hero, and if the point of the number was to show us what O'Connell was hoping to get away from... well, after a couple of minutes, we share his feelings.

Temple also includes allusions to his GREAT ROCK & ROLL SWINDLE universe with appearances by Tenpole Tudor and Irene Handl, and to Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg's PERFORMANCE (an infinitely greater film about London) with appearances by James Fox and Johnny Shannon. There's even a point in the Bowie number that seems to allude directly to that film's show-stopping number "Memo From Turner."

As for the other "buts," let's go back to that "aggressively visual." Home entertainment systems have been around for awhile now, so the expression has gone somewhat out of fashion in terms of reviewing new product - that said, this is a pretty solid "demonstration disc." If you want to show off your video set-up, the early extended take number - or the Bowie number - spilling out of your speakers in 5.1 DTS will serve very nicely.

Also, take note that this is a Twilight Time release, so this is a limited edition Blu-ray with an isolated music track. This sort of feature is usually of appeal to soundtrack collectors, but this one offers a much broader musical spectrum, so that it's probably of greater interest as a musical release than as a film. Its soundtrack encompasses not only Bowie, Ray Davies and Sade but The Style Council, and the entire soundtrack was arranged and conducted by jazz great Gil Evans, who includes a vocal version of Miles Davis' "So What" as a climactic surprise. With the movie playable in 5.1 or 2.0 DTS-HD MA, this disc sounds better than any soundtrack album of this material, and the isolated tracks are exclusive to this release. Therefore, as Twilight Time releases go, ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS has unusual provenance and collectability. If you want it, move fast - limited to 3,000 copies.

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