Today: July 9, 2024

Absolute Beginners

The early 1980s were a terrible time for British cinema. Having allowed television to steal most of its audience and failed to compete against the juggernaut that was post-Star Wars Hollywood, the British film business entered a period in which it struggled to get any films made, let alone seen by audiences substantial enough to support an entire industry. All across the country, cinemas closed and those that managed to remain open became ever-more filthy, sleazy, and unpleasant. Film nerds may lament to loss of fleapit cinemas showing bizarre combinations of horror, erotica, and European art house but normal people will remember the point at which British cinemas looked and felt as uncomfortable as the films they were designed to show.

The sense of cultural malaise that surrounded British film in the early 1980s could not have been more different to the vaulting ambition displayed by the British music industry at the exact same time. Where British films struggled to fill small cinemas, British pop musicians filled stadiums the whole world over. Little wonder then that Stephen Woolley’s up-and-coming film production company Palace Pictures should try to shake British film out of its malaise by borrowing a little music industry glamour in the form of a musical based upon the gritty post-War novels of Colin MacInnes.

Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners offers a troubling snapshot of its own cultural moment: Set in the late 1950s, the film waxes nostalgic about the cultural renewal of the late-1950s only to channel these feelings of nostalgia into a biting commentary on the forces of cultural and economic reaction that had been unleashed by the rapidly-maturing Thatcher government. Shot mostly on studio lots and concerned mostly with the past, the film voices its feelings of malaise by painstakingly recreating 1950s Soho only to litter it with anachronistic touches like neon socks, punk rock fashion shows, and the music of performers like David Bowie, Sade, Ray Davies, and the Style Council. At the time, critics hated the film’s unsettling combination of nostalgia and modernity but time and distance allow us to see a film that is beautiful, stylish, and made with more political insight that almost any other British film of the 1980s.

The film opens with a succession of long-take explorations of 1950s Soho. Our guide is Colin (Eddie O’Connell) a working class lad who is eking out a living as a street photographer while trying to secure the affections of the ambitious fashion designer Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit). These long takes are arguably the best things about the film as Temple recreates a vision of 1950s Soho that is vibrant, transgressive, multi-cultural and positively over-flowing with life. This is a place where races mingle with sexualities as crime, passion, and violence spill out onto rain-slicked streets. As Colin puts it, knives are sometimes drawn… but only among friends.

Despite being a white working-class lad from the (then) mean streets of Pimlico, Colin is a true bohemian who revels in his newly-formed identity as a teenager. At first, the film only asks questions about what it means to be a teenager and this uncertainty is fed back into the lives of the two primary characters: Colin believes that — as a teenager — he is free to make his own friends and plot his own path without being overly concerned with money while Suzette views her identity as something she can market and sell in order to get on. In other words, Absolute Beginners is a film about the tension between authenticity and commerciality that exists in all moments of cultural renewal.

This tension is rapidly complicated by the suggestion that 1950s Youth Culture is reaching a moment of crisis as sleazy record producers, fashion designers, and journalists start trying to exploit a set of cultural energies that were never their own to begin with. Temple captures this moment of crisis by having Lionel Blair’s sleazy record producer turn a schoolboy into a star simply because he happened to fit into a particular item of clothing.

The economic pressures on cultural renewal are also evident in the scenes where Colin returns to his down-at-heel neighbourhood in what would now be referred to as White City. Back in the 1950s, White City was made up of street after street of tenement housing where the young, the poor, and the marginalised could live relatively inexpensively. Cheap accommodation is vital to cultural renewal as, aside from forcing different groups together and allowing them to exchange ideas, it also gives creative people enough economic wiggle room to experiment and create new cultural markets. Right from the start, the film explores the economic pressures on these types of cultural spaces as the presence of cool young creative people also serves to attract the interest of wealthier people who are happy to pay for nicer housing even if it means the eviction of the people who made the neighbourhood cool in the first place. As the film progresses, the process of gentrification accelerates as ambitious land lords turn first to physical violence, then to employing street gangs, and finally to white supremacist groups whose racist diatribes turn neighbour against neighbour while the wealthy rub their hands and draw up plans for future sky scrapers.

Frustrated by the loss of Suzette and alienated from a cultural scene that is becoming more-and-more obsessed with money, Colin decides to sell out at a meeting with the advertising executive Vendice Partners who offers Colin the world in return for the use of his teenaged sensibility. This works well until Colin’s success propels him onto national television where he is not only encouraged to distance himself from his one-time friends but also turn a blind-eye to the self-serving hypocrisy of the British establishment. As the long hot summer of 1958 blossoms into a series of race riots engineered by capitalists and racists working together, Colin and his friends take to the streets and confront the real price of selling out.

Absolute Beginners is well-written, well-observed, and inspired by a set of political themes that were as relevant in 1958 as they were in 1986. Profoundly humane and unabashedly left-wing, Temple’s film offers us the style of a 1980s music video with all the power of 1950s social realism. Visually, the film is never anything less than arresting as richly-designed sets combine with vibrant colours and striking choreography to produce a sense of heightened reality that feels perfectly in synch not only with the period in which the film was made but also with the cultural moment in which the film was set. Absolute Beginners fuses the 1950s with the 1980s and reminds us of how the British establishment conspires to shut down and commercialise every last moment of revolutionary promise.

Absolute Beginners may be long overdue a reappraisal but it is easy to see why its initial release was met by a torrent of critical scorn. The problem is that while the film makes a lot of its musical numbers and much of the film’s original marketing rested on the fame of its musical stars, none of its tunes are all that memorable. It’s not just that fashions have changed and that Temple’s film remains in an unhappy marriage to a now deeply-unfashionable moment in the history of popular music, it’s that none of the songs (with the possible exception of Bowie’s theme tune) are any good and that the musical numbers are so unbalanced that they wind up wasting Olivier Stapleton’s cinematography and David Togurri’s choreography by shackling them to a succession of tedious tunes. The irony of Absolute Beginners’ reputation is that while Palace Pictures made the film as part of a desperate attempt to appropriate the glamour and popularity of British pop music, it’s the film’s non-musical elements that ensure its continued relevance and vitality. Colin Wendell may have been right when he celebrated the success of Chariots of Fire by claiming that the British were coming, but if they were… they certainly weren’t singing.

Previous Story

Dr. Strangelove

Next Story


Latest from Blog


Memory (2023)

Memory is an exquisite American drama in the tender embrace of Michel Franco’s cinematic prowess.

Civil War Unboxing

Alex Garland’s harrowing dystopian vision Civil War was an unforgettable experience in the cinema – particularly IMAX – thanks to its stunning cinematography but more so that chilling sound design that gave

The Moon Steelbook Unboxing

K-Pop sensation Doh Kyung-soo (better known as D.O.) stars in this thrilling survival sci-fi from filmmaker Kim Yong-hwa, available now in a gorgeous 4K UHD Steelbook release. The Moon is a compelling

Sopranos legend Dominic Chianese tells his story

This Friday night, legendary actor Dominic Chianese – best known for his unforgettable performance as Corrado ‘Junior’ Soprano in HBO’s The Sopranos – tells his story through words and music in Windsor. 


What’s the first thing you think of when you think of stop-motion? You probably think of Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, Ray Harryhausen, or Laika’s output. But as proven in

The Miracle Fighters

The Miracle Fighters is a delirious, frenetic, and wildly imaginative kung fu movie from the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping.  Released in 1982, The Miracle Fighters is a comedic tale of taoist magic, directed by
Go toTop

Don't Miss

Absolute Beginners

Starring the legendary David Bowie, along with his renowned title