Absolute Beginners is one of many Blu-ray premieres released, over the past few years, where I completely missed them first time round. This was largely because it wasn’t the sort of thing I was going to rush to the cinema to see (even at the age of 14 I could’ve passed for 15 – it certainly worked when I was 12!), and because when it came to VHS, it languished in godawful 4:3 pan-and-scan hell for an eternity.
There was a widescreen DVD release along the way in the early 21st Century, but that fell off my radar as I tried to catch up with the mountains of releases bucketing out onto the fledgling format. And I don’t really go for musicals, but there are gaps in my movie knowledge which must be filled and there’s always been something intriging about this one for me.
But 2016 marks the 30th anniversary, so it’s a timely release for that, plus the sad fact that David Bowie passed away in January this year, two days after the release of his last album, Blackstar.
At first, I thought this film might just be a loose and vague story on which to hang a series of – what were revealed to be – outstanding set pieces, as that would have been easy to do, but the story is tough and depicts a harsh and compromising time.
Prior to watching this, I heard the theme tune played again on the radio recently and, like a lot of his work as he never stopped reinventing himself, it shows what an incredible talent Bowie was and, thus, that his legacy will live on for countless generations.
The time and place is London, 1958. Britain is regaining its mojo for the first time since the Second World War ended, Colin (Eddie O’Connell) lives in a neighbourhood that’s rougher than Stockport, and Suzette (Patsy Kensit) is his girlfriend and also the accidental model. Well, she was never just going to remain a costume upholster. The record store’s even got a couple of 1950s era pinball machines, and I still saw one going great guns at Play Expo 2015.
Everyone is on equal terms whether male, female and regardless of their skin tone and sexual orentation. That’s how a Friday night feels out in Manchester – everyone’s just out for a good time and we can all get along great… well until, in both cases, a fight breaks out. However, in this film, things take a very sinister turn.
This film was originally a 15-certificate but was re-rated as a 12 in May this year. Don’t sorry, there’s no cuts, but while some of the racist language used may be less shocking today, it’s often spoken in an aggressive manner and, coupled with the occasional, sharp violence, I would’ve assumed it was still a 15 had I not discovered otherwise.
The racist scenes are very unsettling, especially when a black lady’s baby’s pram is shaken about and almost turned over, although at one point, the racists do get a verbal slap from the late, great Irene Handl.
With a blisteringly colourful, opening one-take scene and a number of incredible sets, one of my particular favourites being the house set, in the song written by and featuring Ray Davies, plus a glorious palette of colours, often a different colour projected onto different individuals, such as when Suzette is singing “Having It All” to Colin (and showing her selfish side), Absolute Beginners was a surprising treat.
I also love that Colin regularly takes pictures of everyone on a night out for posterity, since he’s stepping an advance on everyone who takes selfies now.
And as I’ve since progressed from teen life myself, I agree with his comment: “If this is adult life, I think I’ll stay an absolute beginner forever”.
And I spotted a continuity error at 76 minutes when a piano is seen on fire with Flikker standing in front of it (seen from a shot from a rooftop), then it cuts to ground level where the piano isn’t yet alight and he walks into shot, then subsequent shots are with it on fire again.
There’s also quite a cast which I didn’t realise before watching this. Obviously, I knew Bowie was in it – albeit not as much as I expected, but in addition to Ray Davies, there’s a nicely camp James Fox, a brief turn from Robbie Coltrane, a much younger (obviously) Steven Berkoff – currently gracing Channel 4’s Man Down as mad caretaker Krakow, Passenger 57 bad guy Bruce Payne as racist Flikker, singers Sade and Edward Tudor-Pole, ex-Eastender Gary Beadle, and the one and only Lionel Blair as pop-picker (literally) Harry Charms.
Sadly, there’s also a few who have passed away – the aforementioned Irene Handl, plus Alan Freeman, and two who died long before their time, singer-songwriter Smiley Culture, and dancer Anita Morris, who passed away aged 50, and is the mother of 24 Season 3 and The Walk actor James Badge Dale.
In addition, as I read on IMDB, there should be a post-credits scene, but it’s not Second Sight’s fault that it’s not here. It no longer seems to exist….
- “It’s directly after the closing credits. You hear O’Connell talking and the screen blazes into yellow, then orange, then blue, then black. It’s quite stunning if you see it on a big screen in a theatre. However it seems that’s gone from all the prints now. Sad. It just goes from the credits to black then O’Connell talking. I mean it’s not a HUGE part of the movie but it sets you up for what’s to follow with all the bright primary colors.”
The film is presented in the original 2.35:1 widescreen ratio and in 1080p high definition. While the print looks stunning, bringing out the beautiful sets with no grain on the print, while sometimes the dialogue is in sync with the picture, bizarrely, it can go slightly out, and even noticeably out… and within the same scene! Given how it’s generally fine during the songs, I was wondering if it was done on purpose – creating a disparity between real life and fantasy life. There’s no grain on the print, but if the other issue is intentional, I’m prepared to correct this, but otherwise, there’s something seriously wrong with it.
On the other hand, the DTS 5.1 sound really brings the dance numbers to the fore and makes the soundtrack sparkle, with the rears being used superbly well for some lyrics and/or instruments.
Absolute Ambition (53:22) is the sole extra on this release, but the best place to start for an ‘absolute beginner’ as Julien Temple, Nik Powell, Stephen Wooley and a number of others take us through the history of their company, Palace Pictures, the lighting and designing the sets, plus the difficulties with making this film, including thinking the studios were going to pay all the bills, but when you make an assumption…
In addition, Tim Roth was considered before Eddie O’Connell, yet wasn’t thought to be good looking enough. I always thought O’Connell was chosen because he looked a bit like Bowie.
It’s fascinating how the film turned out given how little control Temple and Woolley had over the finished product, so I’d love to see a director’s cut of this, but I suspect, sadly, that will never see the light of day.
The menu mixes clips from the film with a short piece of Bowie’s theme tune, there’s 16 chapters and subtitles are in English only.
Running time: 108 mins
Released: July 25th 2016
Picture: 1080p High Definition
Sound: DTS HD 5.1, DTS 5.1
Widescreen: 2.35:1 (Super Techniscope)
Disc Format: BD50
Director: Julien Temple
Producers: Chris Brown and Stephen Woolley
Screenplay: Richard Burridge, Christopher Wicking, Don MacPherson and Terry Johnson (based on the novel by Colin MacInnes, and developed for the screen by Michael Hamlyn)
Music: Gil Evans
Suzette: Patsy Kensit
Colin: Eddie O’Connell
Vendice Partners: David Bowie
Henley of Mayfair: James Fox
Arthur: Ray Davies
Mum: Mandy Rice-Davies
Big Jill: Eve Ferret
Mr. Cool: Tony Hippolyte
Wizard: Graham Fletcher-Cook
Fabulous Hoplite: Joe McKenna
The Fanatic: Steven Berkoff
Athene Duncannon: Sade
Ed the Ted: Edward Tudor-Pole
Flikker: Bruce Payne
Call-Me-Cobber: Alan Freeman
Dido Lament: Anita Morris
Dean Swift: Paul Rhys
The Misery Kid: Julian Firth
Baby Boom: Chris Pitt
Harry Charms: Lionel Blair
Johnny Wonder: Gary Beadle
Mario: Robbie Coltrane
Cappuccino Man: Jess Conrad
DJ Entertainer: Smiley Culture
Amberley Drove: Ronald Fraser
Party Singer: Slim Gaillard
Mrs. Larkin: Irene Handl
Vern: Peter-Hugo Daly
Dorita: Amanda Jane Powell
Saltzman: Johnny Shannon
Cynthia Eve: Sylvia Syms
Santa Lucia Club Owner: Ekow Abban
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.