At points this year it’s felt as if everything started to go wrong after David Bowie died in January: a wave of other celebrity deaths followed, while in the political sphere we suffered Donald Trump’s seemingly unstoppable rise, while the UK was splintered by the Brexit referendum. And the weather’s been rubbish, too.
Absolute Beginners couldn’t come at a better time then. Not only does this 30th anniversary reissue give us all a welcome dose of Bowie in our lives, but it’s a reminder that the problems we face at the moment aren’t entirely new to us: we’ve faced them, and beaten them, before.
Julien Temple’s directorial debut, based on a novel by Colin MacInnes, is a musical that takes as its setting London in the summer of ‘58, following young photographer Colin (Eddie O’Connell), who’s drawn into the worlds of fashion, pop music, and advertising in the wake of model Suzette (Patsy Kensit).
Just as London at that time was caught up in a wave of inspiration from across the Pond, growing commercialisation and the rise of the teenager combining to reshape the city’s nightlife, so Temple draws heavily from American musicals. In broad strokes the film shares Grease!’s fascination with ‘50s youth culture, but there are more specific influences like a touch of West Side Story to an early choreographed knife fight. Absolute Beginners knows that such theatricality has its place however, dominating the film’s early, jubilant set pieces but allowing more realist influences to dominate the film’s darker climax.
And what a climax it is. Historically minded readers might note that London in the summer of 1958 suffered through the Notting Hill race riots, and that tension between white Teddy Boys and the area’s West Indian immigrants bubbles throughout the film before exploding in a violent, challenging final act, at odds with the film’s early upbeat musical presentation. It’s a big ask, and the film can’t quite stick every tonal shift, but at its best it’s a fascinating, powerful ride.
Absolute Beginners risks being overshadowed by Labyrinth, also enjoying its 30th anniversary this year. The cult classic does offer more Bowie bang for your buck (here he enjoys only a few scenes, though also contributes the sorely underrated title track), but Absolute Beginners stands strong beyond him — and is far more relevant to the modern day than any film made in 1986 and set in 1958 has any right to be.
Words by Dominic Preston