Absolute Beginners (film)

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Absolute Beginners
Absolute beginners poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJulien Temple
Written byRichard Burridge
Christopher Wicking
Don Macpherson
Based onAbsolute Beginners
1959 novel
by Colin MacInnes
Produced by
CinematographyOliver Stapleton
Edited byGerry Hambling
Music byGil Evans
Distributed byPalace Pictures
Release date
  • 18 April 1986 (1986-04-18)
Running time
108 minutes[1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget£8.4 million[2]
Box office£1.8 million[3]

Absolute Beginners is a 1986 British musical film adapted from Colin MacInnes' book about life in late 1950s London, directed by Julien Temple. The film stars Eddie O' Connell, Patsy Kensit, James Fox, Edward Tudor-Pole, Anita Morris, and David Bowie, with featured appearances by Sade Adu, Ray Davies, and Steven Berkoff. It was screened out of competition at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.[4] It received coverage in the British media but was panned by critics and became a box office failure, although modern reviews have been more favourable.[5] Bowie's theme song was very popular in the UK, spending nine weeks on the charts and peaking at number two.[6]

The commercial failure of Absolute Beginners and two other films is blamed for the collapse of British film studio Goldcrest Films.[7]


Taking place in 1958, popular culture in London is transforming from 1950s jazz to a new generation on the verge of the rock and roll 1960s. Young photographer Colin is in love with aspiring fashion designer Crepe Suzette. Colin aims to be an artist with integrity. Suzette's boss, famous designer Henley of Mayfair, takes advantage of her forward-thinking designs to boost his own image.

Colin lives in the poor, ethnically diverse neighbourhood of Notting Hill. To make money, he gets a job with music producer Harry Charms, taking photos of new teen idol Baby Boom. Despite Colin getting commercial photography work, Suzette breaks up with him. She explains that she wants success and luxury in life and won't settle for less ("Having It All"). He's initially despondent, but believes she'll eventually come back to him.

Colin learns that Suzette will be at a party hosted by gossip columnist Dido Lament, and so he attends. He learns Suzette plans to marry the middle-aged, homosexual Henley for her career ("Selling Out"). Colin also meets advertising mogul Vendice Partners at the party.

Meanwhile, the Teddy Boy subculture is increasingly hostile towards Black residents in London, spurred by the recent rise in immigration. The White Defence League, led by the Fanatic, preaches fascist politics and is vehemently against the increasing ethnic diversity of London. Colin despises this rise in racist ideology.

Partners brings Colin to his advertising agency, where he shows off plans for the White Housing Development. Partners offers Colin a position as an advertisement photographer. While hesitant at first, Colin is convinced to take the job in the hopes that the money may help him win back Suzette ("That's Motivation").

Henley and Suzette marry, but she is deeply unhappy. Colin, Dido, and Charms go on the TV show Searchlight. Dido gropes Colin, prompting him to have an outbust and rail against the elder generation trying to exploit teenagers. Later, at a jazz club, Colin is commended for his honesty on television. However, he's upset when he sees a newspaper headline about Suzette's wedding ("Killer Blow").

Racial violence intensifies in the area. Colin's Black friend, Mr. Cool, informs him that the White supremacist movement is becoming more organized and dangerous. Colin discovers that the new White Housing Development is a scheme between Partners and Henley to "redevelop" the "West 11." Colin sends incriminating photos to Dido in an attempt to reveal the plan, but she's in cahoots with Partners and is no help.

Colin witnesses the 1958 Notting Hill race riots ("Riot City"). His pleas for peace are ignored. The police eventually arrive and stop the violence. Colin finds Suzette and they flee a fire set by the WDL. Mr. Cool has a fight with the Fanatic and wins. There is celebratory dancing in the street as rain puts out the fires. Colin and Suzette go back to his flat and have sex. He throws her wedding ring out the window.



Christopher Wicking worked on an early draft of the script which he said "had some sort of propulsion from one scene to the next".[8] He says the script helped raise American finance but then Julien Temple became involved and disregarded a lot of Wicking's ideas. Wicking also says the filmmakers could never reconcile if the musical numbers should advance the story or illustrate something about the characters at the time.[8]

$2.5 million of the film's budget came from Orion and £2.5 million from Goldcrest.[9]


Absolute Beginners: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack was concurrently released to promote the film, and the musical score was composed by Gil Evans. David Bowie's title track, Ray Davies' "Quiet Life", and the Style Council's "Have You Ever Had It Blue?" were released as singles. Abridged versions of the LP were released featuring only sides one and two, and CD versions excised the tracks "Absolute Beginners (Slight Refrain)," "Landlords and Tenants", "Santa Lucia". and "Cool Napoli".[citation needed]

Track listing[edit]

Side one
1."Absolute Beginners"David BowieDavid Bowie7:58
2."Killer Blow"Sade Adu, Simon Booth, Larry StabbinsSade4:34
3."Have You Ever Had It Blue?"Paul WellerThe Style Council5:36
4."Quiet Life"Ray DaviesRay Davies2:55
5."Va Va Voom"Gil EvansGil Evans3:26
Side two
1."That's Motivation"BowieDavid Bowie4:14
2."Having It All"Geoff Beauchamp, Alex Godson, Patsy KensitEighth Wonder featuring Patsy Kensit3:06
3."Rodrigo Bay"Booth, StabbinsWorking Week3:27
4."Selling Out"Slim Gaillard, Tot Taylor, Julien TempleSlim Gaillard3:34
5."Riot City"Jerry DammersJerry Dammers8:28
Side three
1."Boogie Stop Shuffle (Rough and the Smooth)"Charles MingusGil Evans3:01
2."Ted Ain't Dead"Edward Tudor-Pole, TempleTenpole Tudor2:35
3."Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu)"Franco Migliacci, Domenico ModugnoDavid Bowie3:13
4."Napoli"Clive Langer, TempleClive Langer4:09
5."Little Cat (You Never Had It So Good)"Nick LoweJonas2:19
6."Absolute Beginners (Slight Refrain)"BowieGil Evans0:38
Side four
1."Better Git It in Your Soul (The Hot and the Cold)"MingusGil Evans1:49
2."Landlords and Tenants"Laurel AitkenLaurel Aitken2:46
3."Santa Lucia"Ekow AbbanEkow Abban3:49
4."Cool Napoli"Langer, TempleGil Evans2:01
5."So What? (Lyric Version)"Smiley CultureMiles Davis, Smiley Culture4:18
6."Absolute Beginners (Refrain)"BowieGil Evans1:37


Chart (1986) Peak
Australia (Kent Music Report)[10] 85



New York Times film critic Caryn James remarked upon the "unevenness" of Temple's adaptation and its "erratic" results.[11] Pauline Kael declared that the music was "peculiarly unlyrical and ephemeral".[12] Jeremy Allen in The Guardian praised Bowie's theme song but described the film as "an overbudget turkey of huge proportions".[13] Corey K. Creekmur stated in The International Film Musical that the film "failed to deliver on the critical expectations surrounding it", although it remained "a deeply interesting, if flawed, attempt to harness the contemporary musical in the services of politics and social equality".[14]

Alex Stewart reviewed Absolute Beginners for White Dwarf #79, and stated that "It's glossy, slick and superficial, with a couple of nods towards Social Significance which stand out almost as awkwardly as the stumps of the subplots that ended up on the cutting-room floor. On the other hand the singing and dancing are quite nice, the climax looks uncannily like Quartermass and the Pit set to music, and the grossly over-hyped Patsy Kensit duly meets a most satisfying nemesis by turning in a performance that would have disgraced an episode of Thunderbirds."[15]

Absolute Beginners currently holds a 78% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on nine reviews.[16]

Box office[edit]

Goldcrest Films invested £4,680,000 in the film and received £1,859,000 back, losing £2,821,000.[17]


  1. ^ "Absolute Beginners (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 18 March 1986. Retrieved 19 October 2016.
  2. ^ Walker 2005, p. 33.
  3. ^ Walker 2005, p. 54.
  4. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Absolute Beginners". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 17 July 2009.
  5. ^ "The Uma Thurman film so bad it made £88 on opening weekend". The Guardian. 26 March 2010. Retrieved 21 September 2020.
  6. ^ "Absolute beginners. Full Official Chart History". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 21 September 2020.
  7. ^ "The Quietus | Film | Film Features | Bowiefest Preview: Absolute Beginners Revisited". The Quietus. Retrieved 21 September 2020.
  8. ^ a b All's Well That Ends: an interview with Chris Wicking Monthly Film Bulletin; London Vol. 55, Iss. 658, (1 November 1988): 322.
  9. ^ "Bad Beginning." Sunday Times [London, England] 15 June 1986: 45. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. Web. 8 April 2014.
  10. ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992 (illustrated ed.). St Ives, N.S.W.: Australian Chart Book. p. 284. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.
  11. ^ James, Caryn (18 April 1986). "Rock Musical 'Beginners'". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved 6 May 2016.
  12. ^ Kael, Pauline (2011) [1991]. 5001 Nights at the Movies. Henry Holt and Company. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-250-03357-4.
  13. ^ Allen, Jeremy (3 December 2014). "David Bowie: 10 of the best". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  14. ^ Creekmur, Corey K. (2013). The International Film Musical. Edinburgh University Press. p. 26. ISBN 978-0748634774.
  15. ^ Stewart, Alex (July 1986). "2020 Vision". White Dwarf. Games Workshop (79): 18.
  16. ^ "Absolute Beginners (1986)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  17. ^ Eberts, Jake; Illott, Terry (1990). My indecision is final. Faber and Faber. p. 656.
  • Walker, Alexander (2005). Icons in the Fire: The Rise and Fall of Practically Everyone in the British Film Industry 1984-2000. Orion Books.

External links[edit]