A film that divides, but you might rethink your opinion after the Absolute Beginners BFI screening and Julian Temple Q&A.
Yes, the BFI is throwing the movie version of Absolute Beginners into the limelight after something like 35 years. Yes, it really is that long ago. The screening takes place on Wednesday 15th September 2021 at 20:25 and as well as seeing the movie itself on the big screen (not a common occurrence) you also get to talk to the people behind it.
That’s right, there’s a Q&A with director Julian Temple as well as cinematographer Oliver Stapleton BSC, which might be interesting. A lot of people have criticised the approach that book adaptation took, so it would good to know why Julien Temple went down that road and what his thoughts are all these decades after.
It’s described by the BFI as ‘Julien Temple’s brave reboot of the British movie musical for the MTV generation’. You might have a different opinion. In fact, here’s mine…
Absolute Beginners – it was the film franchise that couldn’t fail. A cult novel that reads like a film screenplay, a ‘hip’ director and a bag load of goodwill. But it did fail – and unlike most movies that get ripped apart by the critics, this one didn’t even get belated cult status.
But is it really so bad? Well…
I was one of the people willing this to work. As a schoolkid, I was obsessed with this book, I can still quote chunks of it now. And I really hated this movie version when it came out. Director Julien Temple wasn’t an obvious movie man, he was from a music and music video background – and took the brave/foolish decision (take your pick) to turn Absolute Beginners into a musical.
In fact, watching it now it seems more like a traditional West End show. There’s was another problem too – it was the 1980s.
Ok, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this film has 80s stamped all over it – the hair, the music, the clothing – it was all supposed to be set in the late 50s, but for me, Temple didn’t get that vintage/period feel quite right. A more experienced director probably could. Or did he intend that look? You’ll have to ask him. And a more experienced director might well have ditched much of the music, as well as the wooden leads (Patsy Kensit and Eddie O’Connell).
But time is a great healer and I’ve recently re-watched Absolute Beginners. And you know what? It’s not quite as bad as I remember. Although it is still far from a classic.
The good points include James Fox’s ability to keep a straight face as Henley the old school fashion designer, Bowie’s theme tune (arguably his last decent ‘pop’ song) and a ‘plot’ that stays relatively faithful to the book, even if it does miss out many of the better parts.
The downsides are still those leads (Patsy Kensit really does hog the limelight – the role of Suzette is fairly minor in the book), the wooden stage-style sets, the lack of any real detail (Colin was an early Mod, not the poor man’s James Dean seen on screen), the stunted dialogue taken ‘word for word’ from the book and above all, the need to turn what’s essentially a dark, downbeat but ultimately positive book into something bold, colourful and but not particularly memorable.
Yet despite all this, Absolute Beginners is still an entertaining watch. It’s no classic, it’s not even a cult classic, but it’s still a fascinating film of the era.
If you want to see it once more, grab tickets for the screening and Q&A here.
Update: An Absolute Beginners 30th anniversary Blu-ray is also available to order at Amazon. You can get a Bu-ray for £13.99 and a good old DVD for just £6.99.