What does it sound like?:
Absolute Beginners is a film that can’t make up its mind if it’s a musical or a series of pop videos. It fits into Julien Temple’s directing style quite logically. He likes to string together a series of short segments featuring cameos by celebrities, distracting from any lack of narrative or character development by deploying showbiz panache and lots of energy. The Great Rock And Roll Swindle and It’s All True made him a popular turn-to director for eye-catching music videos, a reputation confirmed by Jazzin’ For Blue Jean for David Bowie, a light-hearted twenty minute short you might have seen supporting Company Of Wolves. Goldcrest, a British film company, riding high on the critical and commercial successes of Chariots Of Fire, Ghandi, Local Hero, The Killing Fields and A Room With A View, enlisted Temple for a big budget film of Colin MacInnes’s excellent novel on Afro-Caribbean and hipster culture in 1950’s Swinging London with a view to exploiting the best of British talent in Pop music, acting, writing and film-making.
In the mid 1980s, England was enjoying a revival of smooth jazz with a kindred spirit to the music described in the book. The Jam, one of whose songs was a tribute to Absolute Beginners, had morphed into The Style Council. Sade’s cool aura seemed perfectly placed in a smokey jazz club. Working Week’s finger-popping debut album had attracted admiring glances. Temple’s contact book yielded two first generation mods, David Bowie and Ray Davies, both seduced by the offer of a part in the movie, one that he also extended to Tenpole Tudor. However, the not-so-secret magic ingredient is Jazz luminary Gil Evans who adds high class pizazz to almost all of the tracks. No doubt, his presence and a big budget allowed producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley to recruit some fine session musicians, lush strings and a beefy horn section, including Steve Nieve on keys, Matthew Seligman bass, Don Weller sax, Neil Conti drums and Luis Jardem exotic percussion.
The net result is an excellent soundtrack and a disappointing film. Bowie’s contributions illustrate the project’s strengths and weaknesses perfectly. He plays a deranged ad-man, Vendice Partners, pin-sharp Italian suit, strange American accent and unbound enthusiasm. That’s Motivation sums up his character in a single song and is a contender for Bowie’s weakest. It feels cut and pasted for the film sequence, including a tap-dance routine on a giant typewriter. It would have been no real loss if Vendice Partners had been removed from the final cut altogether. In contrast, the title track is one of Bowie’s best, here displayed in all its eight minute majesty. It’s an overtly romantic song, following a line from An Occasional Dream, through Lady Grinning Soul and Young Americans to China Girl. Its gorgeous melody, swooning chorus and heartfelt vocal, make it so easy to fall in love with. Remarkably, it’s the product of a single day’s studio improvisation, almost as an after-thought, having quickly completed the workmanlike That’s Motivation. Rick Wakeman, accompanying Bowie for the first time since Hunky Dory, overdubbed some Rachmaninovesque flourishes, and Janet Armstrong’s shopgirl vocals are pitch perfect. Bowie also provides a charming, tongue-in-cheek cover of Volare (Nel Blu Dipintu di Blu), wherein his Italian is impressively precise and the Latin percussion nicely exotic. In the film, it plays on the radio as Partners drives his car.
There is much more to the Absolute Beginners Soundtrack than a few exclusive Bowie tracks. Sade Adu has never sounded better in this jazz setting, bouncing off an exuberant double bass. Gil Evans’s horn chart on Have You Ever Had It Blue gives The Style Council a depth and warmth lacking on much of their other output. Ray Davies is inspired, playing ‘dad’, and revisiting the domesticity of his past with his best song of the eighties, Quiet Life, performed in a trad jazz arrangement. Jerry Dammers gets to soundtrack a riot, as though depicting the events before Town became Ghost, laying down the gauntlet to Gil Evans’s orchestra, which responds with its own uproarious Boogie Stop Shuffle, a joyful Better Git It In Your Soul and a flirtatious Va-Va Voom. Patsy Kensit, a fame-hungry seventeen year old, playing the love interest in her movie debut, turns in a kittenish Having It All, fronting her brother’s band, Eighth Wonder. She is out-minxed by Jonas singing a Nick Lowe song, Little Cat (You Never Had It So Good). Working Week enjoy a beach party, Slim Gaillard dazzles with his old-man hipster jive, Laurel Aitken bemoans a shortage of decent rental accommodation over a Pioneers rhythm, and Smiley Culture brings his own world-view to Miles Davis’s So What. Clive Langer indulges himself channeling the spirit of Napoli while Ekow Ebban invokes the beauty of Santa Lucia. There are very few remnants of eighties production, just a hint of a gated drum and some cheesy synthesiser, which are more than compensated for by Gil Evans’s fairy dust. Only Tenpole Tudor’s teddy boy stomp feels out of place.
Absolute Beginners was released in early 1986. Despite its title, it marks more endings than beginnings. The single was the last success of David Bowie’s commercial period. The Style Council never really recovered but limped along for a few years anyway. For Ray Davies, it was a reminder of what he had been capable of in his past rather than a glimpse at what he could do in the future. The film was a flop and, alongside Revolution and The Mission, it led to the closure of Goldcrest Films, effectively wrecking Julien Temple’s career. In fact, 1986 was a year of miserable flops for the British film industry: Shanghai Surprise, Sky Bandits, Gothic, Castaway, Fatherland and Lady Jane among the most notable. The Brits were no longer coming to Hollywood, at least not until The King’s Speech in 2010. It was even the last movie Lionel Blair made an appearance in.
Absolute Beginners Original Soundtrack is a double album with a playing time of nearly eighty minutes. There was also a single album, using the well-worn technique of dropping sides three and four to improve matters. It’s too long to fit on an old CD, so a couple of instrumentals were dropped back in the day. Now, the technology allows us to wallow in the whole as a single entity, as a complete vinyl experience (on much better vinyl than was available in the mid-eighties) or CD, or you can simply stream and download the individual tracks you like.
Absolute Beginners is a thoroughly enjoyable dip in the balmy waters of cool in the 1950s, taken at an eighties Pop angle. It sounds good in the 21st Century, featuring some fine songs in an ill-fated project designed to showcase the best of British talent at the time. However, we should be most grateful for the presence of a Canadian-American, Gil Evans, who is the real star of the show.
What does it all *mean*?
Absolute Beginners may well be amongst the best soundtracks in a decade full of great soundtracks.
Goes well with…
A Vespa, big hair, Italian shoes.
Might suit people who like…
File alongside Paris, Texas, Pretty In Pink, Blade Runner, The Blues Brothers, Repo Man, Some Kind Of Wonderful, Fast Times At Ridgemont High and, of course, Prince’s triple whammy of Purple Rain, Parade and Batman.