Thursday, June 23, 2016

Absolute Beginners

Based on the novel by Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners is the story of a young photographer who tries to deal with the changes in his life due to his girlfriend wanting to become a fashion designer while being lured by a businessman into a world that would cause trouble. Directed by Julien Temple and screenplay by Richard Burridge, Christopher Wicking, Don MacPherson, and additional dialogue by Terry Johnson, the film is a musical set in late 1950s London in its Soho district where young people deal with a changing world. Starring Eddie O’Connell, Patsy Kensit, James Fox, Anita Morris, Bruce Payne, Graham Fletcher-Clark, Sade Adu, Ray Davies, and David Bowie as Vendice Partners. Absolute Beginners is a dazzling yet flawed film from Julien Temple.

Set in the summer of 1958 in the Soho district of London during a youth boom, the film revolves around a photographer trying to live his life and impress his girlfriend only to lose her when she becomes a hit at a fashion show and be engaged to an aging fashion designer. In turn, he gets lured by an exploitive adman for his photographs where he becomes blind to what is happening in the streets of London as racial tension starts to occur from White Supremacists. It’s a film that is a young man trying to define himself as a photographer while hanging out with his friends and listen to jazz yet is unsure of what he has to do to impress his girlfriend who would unfortunately be part of a world that she would eventually not like.

The film’s script doesn’t just play into the world of the youth culture in the late 1950s but also into the conflict that its protagonist Colin (Eddie O’Connell) endures in trying to impress his girlfriend Suzette (Patsy Kensit) who wants to be a fashion designer. The film also has these characters who are willing to exploit the youth culture such as the fashion designer Henley of Mayfair (James Fox) and an adman in Vendice Partners. The latter of which is this eccentric yet charming man with a transatlantic accent who could convince anyone to sell out. The film’s third act becomes serious and changes its tone from being this whimsical and playful musical into a film about racial tension. While the first two acts would hint and reveal events slowly that would cause the tension, how it gets unveiled is clunky where it definitely feels like an entirely different film.

Julien Temple’s direction is definitely stylish in terms of the world he creates where it is largely shot at a studio to recreate the world of the Soho and neighborhoods in London. Featuring an intricate yet stylish tracking shot that goes on for several minutes early in the film, it does capture a lot of what was happening in Soho as Temple’s usage of wide and medium shots capture that vibrancy. Especially in the clubs where there is a lot of dancing as it was choreographed by David Toguri as well as moments where the dancing occurs in other sequences including the riots which is one of the odd moments in the film that doesn’t feel right. The scenes relating to the race riots, as it’s based on the real-life Notting Hills race riots of 1958, feels like it’s a different film where despite carrying similar visuals and compositions. It’s third act is quite problematic as it is clear Temple wasn’t sure what kind of film he wants to make but also is having trouble going back to just being an upbeat and lively musical despite its ending. Overall, Temple creates a messy yet enjoyable film about a young photographer trying to impress his girlfriend in late 1950s London.

Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton does excellent work with the film‘s very colorful cinematography in the way Soho was shot for the scenes set at night as well as its nightclubs along with the more lavish and brightened lights of people in London‘s high society. Editors Richard Bedford, Michael Bradsell, Gerry Hambling, and Russell Lloyd do nice work with the editing as it‘s very stylish in the jump-cuts, transitions, and other cuts to play into the energy of the film. Production designer John Beard, with art directors Stuart Rose and Ken Wheatley, does amazing work with the set design from the look of the clubs and posh homes to some of the musical numbers including the sequence where Partners wins over Colin by song.

Costume designers Sue Blane and David Perry do fantastic work with the costumes from the clothes that Henley creates to some of the suits of the men as well as the dresses that the women wear. Sound mixer David John does terrific work with the sound as it plays into the atmosphere of the clubs and parties that the characters venture into. The film’s music score by Gil Evans is wonderful for its mixture of jazz and early rock n‘ roll to play into that world of late 1950s Britain as the soundtrack itself would feature original songs sung by Ray Davies of the Kinks, the Style Council, Sade, Slim Gaillard, Tenpole Tudor, Smiley Culture, and three songs by David Bowie including its title track and a cover of Volare.

The casting by Leonara Davis, Susie Figgis, and Mary Selway is incredible as it features cameos from Robbie Coltrane as a shopkeeper, Sandie Shaw as a mother of a teen idol, Bruno Tonioli as a lodger at the home of Colin’s parents, Slim Gaillard as a singer at a posh party, and Smiley Culture as the reggae singer at the end of the film. Other notable small roles include Carmen Ejogo as Cool’s young sister Carmen, Julian Firth as the Misery Kid, Paul Rhys as the mod Dean, Joseph McKenna as Colin’s gay friend Hoplite, Chris Pitt as the young teen idol Baby Boom, and Sade Adu as the nightclub singer Athene Duncannon. Performances from Steven Berkoff as a supremacist leader, Edward Tudor-Pole as the Teddy boys leader Ed the Ted, and Bruce Payne as the supremacist enforcer Flikker are superb in their antagonistic roles while Alan Freeman as the talk show host Call-Me-Cobber and Lionel Blair as the pop impresario Harry Charms are fantastic as the men who would exploit the youth movement.

Eve Ferret and Tony Hippolyte are excellent as Colin’s friends in the flamboyant lesbian Big Jill and the jazz-trumpeter Cool, respectively, who deal with the chaos of their world. Graham Fletcher-Cook is terrific as Colin’s ambitious friend Wizard who is very cynical about everything as he does whatever he can to make money and align with anyone with power. Ray Davies and Mandy Rice-Davies are amazing as Colin’s parents with Ray as the neglected and melancholic father who wants a quiet life and Mandy as the mother who is very cruel to her husband. Edward Fox is brilliant as the snobbish Henley as this fashion designer who marries Suzette to help his business only to take her for selfish reasons. Anita Morris is wonderful as the gossip columnist Dido Lament as this woman who would exploit both Suzette and Colin but also would play a key part in helping the latter in its third act.

Eddie O’Connell is terrific as Colin as a young photographer that is trying to live his life to the fullest as well as dealing with the need to sell out in order to impress his girlfriend. Patsy Kensit is radiant as Suzette as a young woman that wants to make it in the fashion world only to realize what she had to do forcing her to make compromises that she doesn’t want. Finally, there’s David Bowie in a small yet spectacular performance as Vendice Partners as this adman with a transatlantic accent that is about selling dreams as he would convince Colin the way to succeed is to sell out as a form of motivation.

Absolute Beginners is a stellar yet messy film from Julien Temple. While it features a great cast and a phenomenal soundtrack, it’s a film that wants to be a lot of things but loses sight in its third act. In the end, Absolute Beginners is a terrific film from Julien Temple.

© thevoid99 2016


Brittani Burnham said...

I've never heard of this one, it sounds interesting. I'll probably throw it in my Netflix queue but note it has its issues. lol

thevoid99 said...

It was on TCM last week as I'm not sure if it's still available on Demand. It's a flawed film but certainly worth checking out if you're a fan of Bowie, Ray Davies, and Sade.