While staying up late the other night watching TV, I caught another one of my "eye magnet" movies. You know, when you're flipping and you run across one, no matter how many times you've seen them before you watch. And watch. Films like (for me) Snatch, the Fifth Element, Pollock, The Hudsucker Proxy. A couple of nights ago, another: Absolute Beginners.
You may be familiar with it; it's a 1986 big screen musical adaptation of the Colin McInnes book about teenage lifestyles and race riots in late 50's & 60s Britain. I've never read the book, and I understand that those who have and loved it were alternately outraged and disappointed in the film. Being unfamiliar with McInnes' novel, all I can do is take the film at face value, and I flat out love three quarters of it.
Directed by then-hot music video director Julien Temple, it's just one visually amazing set piece after another, with a great, eccentric cast, led by Patsy Kensit and some inspired stunt casting like those stalwarts of RCA's glitter years, David Bowie and the Kinks' Ray Davies. Early on, at least, it's about a young photographer named Colin, played by one Eddie O'Connell (who somehow managed to avoid doing much of anything else filmwise of note after AB). Colin wants to maintain his integrity as an artist as well as avoid exploiting the teenage scene from which he's been making a meager living taking snapshots of, but he is also deeply in love with beautiful blonde "Crepe" Suzette (Kensit), who has aspirations for wealth and fame that don't extend to staying in Colin's world. Eventually Suzette, through her job as a fashion designer assistant, manages to attract the interest of Henley, the unctuous gallery owner, and they become engaged. Henley, however, is an aging homosexual who doesn't love her– he wishes to marry Suzette as a front. He's even open to Colin and Suzette seeing each other on the sly after a while; of course, Colin wants no part of it. Feeling dumped by Suzette, Colin is determined to win her back and eventually winds up involved with some of the more corrupt characters in London society including one Vendice Partners (Bowie), a real estate developer who is behind the effort to forcibly eject the minorities living in the London slums where Colin lives so he can build new apartments. Eventually, racial tensions reach the boiling point and a riot breaks out, and all gets sorted out before it's over.
The description doesn't really do it justice...one of the highlights of the movie is the scene in which Colin goes to a party at Partners' on the invitation of Partners' wife, gossip columnist Dido Lament (played by the ubersexy Anita Morris). Of course, Colin sees Suzette there with Henley, gets very drunk, and has this great drunken conversation with himself, in a mirrored cul-de-sac, while some pumping jump-jive music (the great "Sellin' Out) by Slim Gaillard plays in the background and Dido mixes a martini by wedging the shaker between the heel and sole of her seven inch stilettos! Colin takes a swing at Henley, misses, and lands on the spinning floor humiliated. After he picks himself up he encounters Bowie, who wishes to hire him to be his photographer. They have a huge production number, dancing on a immense typewriter...it's one of the most intoxicating 15-20 minutes of film I've ever seen. And believe me, much more happens before and during this particular sequence.
Another highlight is the song by Ray Davies, who plays Colin's father. Colin hates to come home, because his shrewish mother has turned their home into a boarding house and he pities his father who almost seems to be a tenant in his own home. Ray gets to do an Arthur-ish ditty called "Quiet Life", while chaos breaks out in the house all around him as he does his household chores. Most of the song is performed on a set which is a cutaway view of the house itself, where we can see everything that goes on in all the rooms at once. It's an amazing scene.
Unfortunately, the movie grinds to a halt with the climactic race riots. It's probably very much in keeping with the spirit of the book, I can't say, but it's so different in tone to the rest of the film that it's extremely jarring and after you've watched it once you won't care to see it again. It's as stolid and forthright as the other three-quarters of the film is imaginative and exciting.
Heck, if nothing else it's worth seeing to watch Anita Morris mix that martini. I searched high and low on the internet to find a picture of it. If you haven't seen AB, I recommend it highly–it's one of the most underrated musicals ever. It's inexplicably unavailable on DVD, but well worth checking out on Showtime, if you get it, or on VHS.