COMMENTARY : ABSOLUTELY ORIGINAL : ‘BEGINNERS’: LOVED, HATED, BUT ABSOLUTELY ORIGINAL
In the movies, originality is often treated like Original Sin: The sheer expense and trauma of making them seems to paralyze people, dry up their juices. And when that rare free spirit does escape onto the screen, sometimes both public and critics miss it.
Given that context, it’s not surprising that Julien Temple’s “Absolute Beginners"--one of the most entertaining movies this year, and one of the few that shows real invention and audacity, along with big-studio technical flash--has gotten such a various reaction.
This is a picture that could be the first great movie musical of the ‘80s; it may carry the same meanings for our time that “Top Hat,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” “On the Town” or “A Hard Day’s Night” held for theirs.
Yet, it’s been described as “unlistenable” and “unwatchable,” as “absolute garbage” and “like a bunch of music videos pretending to be a feature film.” It’s gotten good notices, too, but unlike Britain (where the reviews tended to be worse, and the audiences made it a huge hit) the crowds here haven’t developed.
The attacks are scattershot. The excellent musical score has been savaged. So have the orchestrations of Gil Evans--a genius of American jazz, who weaves together old tunes by Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus, and new songs by David Bowie, Ray Davies and others into a seamless mix: a delightful goulash of pop, folk, jazz, reggae, blues, skiffle, bubble gum, and full-throttle rock ‘n’ roll. (If the movies can’t appreciate talents like Evans, maybe they don’t deserve them.)
The charming and cheeky, or wildly turbulent, dance numbers have been called MTV-glitzy or hackneyed. And the leads (Patsy Kensit and Eddie O’Connell) have been called too young or too old. The film has even been accused of being anti-black and anti-Semitic . . . astounding charges, considering its anti-prejudice theme and its affectionate idealization of the multiracial community of Napoli.
Most frequently, it’s said that the source, Colin MacInnes’ 1959 novel of the late ‘50s London teen-age explosion, has been cheapened and mangled. MacInnes’ story, though, seems ideal for a musical: It’s about kids whose lives are centered on music, love and breaking through. It charts the summer-long awakening of a teen-age photographer named Colin--as he fights to win his girlfriend Crepes Suzette back from a posh marriage, reckons with his parents and gets caught in the Notting Hill race riots. Temple and the screenwriters have cut and added liberally to the novel--as they had to, in order to reshape it and leave space for more than two dozen musical numbers.
But it’s surprising how much of the book’s spirit is preserved: MacInnes’ verve and spontaneity, the lilt of his writing, his own (largely invented) teen-age lingo. Large chunks of dialogue and narration are transplanted intact. And Temple has been fanatical about catching the style, even to hiring photographer Roger Mayne--on whom the hero was based--to shoot “Colin’s” snapshots.
It’s possible that “Absolute Beginners” is attacked because of its strengths. It is such striking, densely packed entertainment--a whirling kaleidoscope of romance, social satire and dance--that it forces responses out of you. Temple began during his Cambridge years, as the unofficial film archivist for the Sex Pistols. (His wry fictionalized documentary, “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle,” offended the Pistols’ detractors and lead singer Johnny Rotten.) And, though he’s only 32, he has a brash, brilliant, assured style: an impudent virtuosity.
Coming from rock videos, where the sky was often the limit--at least for five minutes--he tries things that more experienced (or tamed) directors wouldn’t dream of.
Take the movie’s piece de resistance , the elaborate opening: a seemingly unbroken tracking shot, staged to Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle.” It begins on Colin’s outfit (meticulously re-created from MacInnes’ description: “gray pointed alligator casuals, pink neon pair of ankle-crepe nylon stretch, Cambridge blue glove-fit jeans, vertical-striped happy shirt. . .”); zips544567328begins winding giddily through several uncannily re-created and stylized blocks of Soho, dodging around cars, through alleys and back into the main drag as Colin snaps shots of most of the local characters.
In this sequence--which recalls the Welles of “Touch of Evil” and the Minnelli of “The Band Wagon"--Temple captures much of the sheer joy of being young and footloose on a Friday night. And he pays homage to MacInnes, ‘50s London and several eras of film history. (The three sailors from “On the Town” cross Colin’s path at one point and waltz off with some Fellini-esque whores). It’s a showy shot, but an enrapturing one--full of the same dare-anything wit that charges the whole movie.
You get the idea that some of the film’s detractors are angry it was made at all, that they think Julien Temple should be punished for hubris. Of course, great movie musicals don’t always need to have deep characterizations, social contexts or even witty dialogue. (What they need is great performers, great numbers and film makers with a knack for visual lyricism.) And it’s true that “Absolute Beginners” has an unusually ambitious subject: the temptations and dangers of postwar affluence, the exploitation of youth by age, black by white, the poor by the rich. But to complain that it overreaches--to say it should just concentrate on being pleasant, silly and tuneful (which it often is, anyway)--is to forget that people like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones put “significance” into pop music two decades ago--and that movie musicals have often lagged behind since.
There’s something genuinely joyous about “Absolute Beginners.” In an era when the movies have become obsessed, usually ineptly, with catching the teen-age viewpoint, here is a film that breathes the soul and spirit of adolescence--its braggadocio, its irreverence, its buoyancy, its blend of energy and laziness, its arrogance and its sometimes unvarnished idealism.
Occasionally, Temple does stage something gauche or overblown; it’s the pitfall of an unfettered style. But his wonderful last shot typifies the movie’s multicultural magic.
Boy finally gets girl after the fiery riot, and the rain pours down in a torrent (while David Bowie sings) to wash London clean again. It’s an exhilarating climax: not only because the human storm is over, but also because rain on the streets has become such an imperishable movie-musical signature that we almost expect to see Gene Kelly himself singing and dancing his way through it.