Absolute Beginners on screen
In 1986, the leading British company Goldcrest released a musical film adaptation of Absolute Beginners. Directed by Julien Temple, the film cost £8.4 million to make (a very high budget at the time, especially for a British film). It features a range of well-known stars from the worlds of film (James Fox, Steven Berkoff) and pop music (David Bowie, Ray Davies), as well as cameo appearances from a motley collection of well-known names of the time including Sade Adu, Tenpole Tudor, Alan Freeman, Lionel Blair and Mandy Rice-Davies (among many others). The film was panned by critics, and was a commercial disaster: it recouped only £1.8 million, and is often accused of bankrupting the Goldcrest studio. The director Julien Temple apparently lost control of the film (three different editors were appointed), and subsequently had a breakdown and left the country.
Even less than the book, the film is clearly not intended as a realist documentary or a work of sociological reportage. It is a musical, with deliberately artificial settings, costumes and dance sequences, and post-dubbed dialogue. Soho is presented very much as a stage set, and the Notting Hill Riots come across like a scene from West Side Story. At least some of the novel survives, although a great deal is changed: Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit) is no longer shown as a promiscuous ‘Spade lover’; the role of the advertising executive Vendice Partners is expanded to accommodate David Bowie; and much of the narrator’s peer group are shown only in passing, if at all. There is a good deal of period detail crammed in, some of it additional to the book (the Wolfenden Report, Hancock’s Half Hour, naturist magazines), and some of it (like Kensit’s mini-skirt) unfortunately anachronistic.
The film self-evidently filters the late 1950s through the lens of the mid-1980s; or, as Temple later put it, ‘we were trying to hold up a mirror to 1958 and another to 1985, and bounce ideas between the two’. This is reflected in the soundtrack, which contains a rap version of Miles Davis’s ‘So What’ and orchestrations of Charles Mingus tunes by the film’s illustrious music director, Gil Evans, alongside songs by Ray Davies, the Style Council and David Bowie that clearly belong to a very different period. The dance sequences owe much to the short-lived jazz dance scene that emerged in a few London clubs in the early 1980s. Albeit not directly, the film reflects the aesthetic approach of ‘post-punk’ genres like ‘new pop’ and ‘new romanticism’ that had emerged in the early 1980s: the emphasis here is on glamour and deliberate artificiality rather than any perceived authenticity. Despite this, the basic cultural sympathies and even the political messages of the book remain more or less intact; although one can only wonder what Colin MacInnes might have made of it.
In different ways, all the texts I have discussed in this essay are attempts to identify and come to terms with that feeling of impending social change with which we began – a feeling that is at least partly identified with young people, or with the idea of youthfulness. These academics, journalists, film-makers and novelists provided contrasting representations and explanations of the youth cultural trends of their time; yet they seemed to share a sense that they were witnessing a beginning of something that would prove to be much more fundamental and far-reaching. Their accounts are shot through with ambivalence, uncertainty and confusion, and with an uneasy mixture of hope and foreboding. Yet it’s at such moments, when change is just taking shape, rather than in the periods where it appears to be in full swing, that we might be able to identify some of the tensions and contradictions that were later obscured. In this respect, we might have more to learn from 1959, even than from 1968…