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Absolute Bowieginners: Absolute Beginners

Christopher Morley is absolutely sane.

The idea of David Bowie appearing in a musical isn’t actually as radical as it may first appear, and Absolute Beginners gave him chance to go back to the London of the 1950s, or as he might have said himself “where he grew up anyway” born as he was in Brixton on January 8, 1947.

The film itself is set only around ten years after Bowie's birth, documenting a shift in popular music away from jazz into the more typical pop & rock sounds of the Sixties. Young David was inspired to become part of that after hearing Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti, an experience which as he told one interviewer convinced him that he had “heard God!" But the Lord, whether actually Little Richard or not, clearly wasn’t smiling on his disciple’s latest project!

Upon release in 1986, Absolute Beginners received an absolute panning from critics and its failure contributed to the complete collapse of Goldcrest Films, which alongside Virgin had produced the film. A total loss of £2,821,000, based on investment of £4,680,000, after a profit of just £1,859,000 is the commercial legacy of the Julien Temple directed adaptation of Colin MacInnes’ book.

Speaking to the Guardian in 2015, Temple admitted the film was already £1 million over budget before it had even begun - not the best of notes to start on! He went on to suggest that the powers that be were not exactly keen on it, either….
“I’d read Colin MacInnes’s book Absolute Beginners as a teenager and it enthralled me. I wanted to turn it into a screen musical that captured the birth of the teenage era in Britain – and the arrival of a black presence in music.

The greybeards who ran cinema were not willing to listen to us young people, though.”

The answer to the knotty question of financing it came through what might now be recognised as crowdfunding.
“Mike Leigh and Ken Loach were the cutting edge of cinema at the time – a musical, with all its spectacle, went against the grain. So, we talked up the idea in the Face and NME, just to say: “Look, people are interested in this.”
But while it flopped, even after Julie Burchill’s pre-release review for the NME, the man who was probably more accustomed to appearing in its pages for his music did enjoy a certain level of success with its title track, written as part of an agreement with Temple that he could play the role of Vendice Partners as well as contributing music for the film.

David Bowie and Julien Temple had previously worked together on Jazzin’ For Blue Jean. In essence, this was a feature-length promotional video for the Blue Jean single from David’s Tonight album, a relatively quick attempt to replicate the success of his turn towards what he termed plastic soul on Young Americans & Let’s Dance. He went so far as to call Young Americans...
“...the definitive plastic soul record. It's the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey.”

And he would later admit of the recording process for the final part of his soul trilogy...
“...was rushed. The process wasn't rushed; we actually took our time recording the thing; Let's Dance was done in three weeks, Tonight took five weeks or something, which for me is a really long time. I like to work fast in the studio. [But] there wasn't much of my writing on it 'cause I can't write on tour and I hadn't assembled anything to put out.”

Absolute Beginners would go on to be added as part of the bonus material for a Virgin Records 1995 reissue of Tonight alongside This Is Not America with the Pat Metheny Group from The Falcon & The Snowman, and As The World Falls Down as had first been heard in Labyrinth.

The video for Absolute Beginners was, as you might expect, directed by Temple and shot in the same style as its parent film, based on an advert for Strand Cigarettes - whose “you’re never alone with a Strand” tagline is actually quoted by Bowie as Partners in the narrative of the film.

We might well see fit to pose the question of whether Absolute Beginners was as bad as it seems to have been remembered. After all, a full colour recreation of a time which certainly wasn’t often properly depicted, and based upon respected source material, must be worth some praise, surely?

A Quietus preview of a retrospective Bowiefest screening had this to say...
“Social realism back then meant black and white. Teen images too were almost strictly monochromatic: the juvenile delinquents of Cosh Boy, subject to the UK's first X certificate, and Beat Girl; the audience members on Jack Good's pioneering pop music shows Six-Five Special and Oh Boy!; the Teds as captured by local news teams or the 16mm cameras of the Free Cinema movement.

More specifically, this was Colin MacInnes' Soho. Absolute Beginners, the novel, was first published in 1958, steadily moving from cult to classic during the intervening years. Despite being written by a 44-year-old who'd previously been employed by the BBC, it nevertheless managed to capture something of that very specific period in history.

The written word allowed MacInnes the freedom to chronicle the reality. This was the true face of the capital - pimps, pornographers, pederasts, users, abusers, gays, lesbians, the multicultural and the subcultural - as seen through the eyes (and lens) of a nameless 18-year-old photographer.

He brought out the journalistic curiosity in MacInnes, at once cynical and enthused, not to mention his way with words. The lingo (all "concrete-kissers" and "H-category product") and little turns of phrase ("dressed up in casuals that cost far more than usuals") are now perfectly evocative of that bygone age.

It's this documentary quality which gives the novel its primary appeal, and also explains why it has since become something of a style bible to aspiring mod revivalists and the like.”

So, like David himself, Absolute Beginners is probably worthy of investigation even this long after passing.

Next time, from the beginnings of Sixties pop to a cameo as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ, as the son of God prepares to take one for the team, as it were!

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