Sunday, May 8, 2011

Underrated Movies - For the love of "Absolute Beginners"

The years were 1985 and 1986. I was a teen growing up in the burgeoning hard-core punk scene in Washington, DC and when I wasn't listening to local heroes like Fugazi and KingFace, I was OBSESSED with anything and everything British Mod Revival. The music - Style Council, The Jam, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Specials, The English Beat. The fashion - skinny pegged brushed cotton trousers, Creepers, parkas, and late 50s/early 60s inspired crap. And I wasn't the only one. This scene was seeping into American culture in a lot of big cities. There was a reason that I almost ran away from my tour group when we went to London in the spring of 1986, to steep myself fully in the culture and live a divine life in Notting Hill.

And then there was the 1986 film Absolute Beginners.
It was the visually inventive and energetic pop musical adapted from Colin MacInnes' 1959 cult novel of the same name. Absolute Beginners is like a color-soaked, crazy infectious music video come to life. It's one of the best examples of the fantasy-like movie adaption (like Velvet Goldmine) where they take a staid source material and bring it to the screen in the biggest, over-the-top way possible.
It is the tale of two swinging English teens; 19 yr old photographer Colin, played by the dreamy Eddie O'Connell,  and fashion icon wanna-be (Crepe) Suzette played by the gorgeous Patsy Kensit; set against the backdrop of emerging youth culture and racial tension in late 1950s London. Colin is hopelessly in love with Suzette, but her relationships are strictly connected with her progress in the fashion world. So Colin gets involved with a pop promoter and tries to crack the big time. Meanwhile, racial tension is brewing in Colin's neighborhood, as the rich whites come in to gentrify and redevelop the poor and largely non-white Notting Hill housing estate. As Suzette becomes a success in the fashion business and looks set to leave her street roots behind, Colin is torn between his youthful idealism and his desire to do whatever is necessary to lure her back.

I won't mislead you. Absolute Beginners is silly. The characters are flimsy and two-dimensional. And even though the film is telling a fairly compelling story in an unique way, it largely fails in many ways. BUT what it gets right! The music. The beautiful seeped-in colors saturating every frame. The movie has an "atmosphere" that is really engaging. David Bowie is still so cool both singing the title tune and playing the promoter. It also features the great James Fox and Bruce Payne. There's no shortage of enjoyable moments.
This movie hasn't been on my radar since college, and even then it's probably been a good 23 years sinc I've watched it all the way through. But that's one of the only joys of being confined in bed recovering from surgery; you get to watch wacky stuff on Instant Netflix that you wouldn't normally bother with. I'm so glad I spent my Sunday morning with this blast from the past. Makes me want to dig my blue suede Creepers out of my closet, buy a Vespa, and cruise around town singing "Have You Ever Had It Blue?" at the top of my lungs.

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