Absolute Beginners (film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Absolute Beginners
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
  • 3 April 1986 (1986-04-03)
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 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 a successful and luxurious life, and won't settle for less ("Having It All"). Colin is 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 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 takes the job in the hopes that 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 racists are 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]

Eddie O'Connell and Patsy Kensit were relative unknowns when cast for the film and, according to Julien Temple in a 2016 interview (included on the re-released DVD/Blu-Ray), neither got on with each other pretty well. Temple wanted to include musicians that represented music from the 1950s through to the 1980s with many of his contacts being from music videos whom he had directed. Ed Tudor-Pole (playing teddyboy 'Ed The Ted') had met Temple through his work on the Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle film. Ray Davies, Sade and David Bowie were recruited after Temple had directed music videos for them ("Predictable" for Davies' group The Kinks in 1981, "Hang On to Your Love" and "Smooth Operator" for Sade in 1984 and the short film Jazzin' for Blue Jean for Bowie also in 1984). Broadway star Anita Morris had appeared in Temple's promo for The Rolling Stones' "She Was Hot" whilst Eve Ferret had co-starred as a receptionist in Jazzin' for Blue Jean.

In the aforementioned 2016 interview, producer Stephen Woolley recalled the financial challenges that were facing film company Goldcrest at the time- Absolute Beginners was made around the same time as Hugh Hudson's Revolution (starring Al Pacino) and Roland Joffé's The Mission (starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons); as both films were seen to be more high profile due to their relatively higher budgets and more noted filmstars, Absolute Beginners did not get as much financial support the other two films. All three films would fail at the box office leading to Goldcrest's eventual collapse.

Whilst the critical reviews in the UK were fairly disappointing, the box office performed respectably well whilst the reverse was true in America, where good notices by critics were not matched by a number of ticket sales. Temple would note in 2016 that he had to leave the UK in order to find work elsewhere- two noted fans of the film were Michael and Janet Jackson, leading to him directing Janet's promo clips for When I Think Of You and Alright which emulate some of the visual style of Absolute Beginners. Other musicians like Bowie, Billy Idol, Whitney Houston and Blur (amongst others) would keep Temple's career in music video directing ongoing.


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


Сhart performance for Absolute Beginners
Chart (1986) Peak
Australian Albums (Kent Music Report)[10] 85
Austrian Albums (Ö3 Austria)[11] 6
Dutch Albums (Album Top 100)[12] 29
Finnish Albums (Suomen virallinen lista)[13] 38
German Albums (Offizielle Top 100)[14] 36
Swedish Albums (Sverigetopplistan)[15] 45
Swiss Albums (Schweizer Hitparade)[16] 10
UK Albums (OCC)[17] 19


The film had its premiere at the Leicester Square Theatre on 3 April 1986 attended by Princess Anne.[18] It opened to the public the following day at the theatre and at the Odeon Marble Arch before expanding nationwide on 11 April.[19]



New York Times film critic Caryn James remarked upon the "unevenness" of Temple's adaptation and its "erratic" results.[20] Pauline Kael declared that the music was "peculiarly unlyrical and ephemeral".[21] Jeremy Allen in The Guardian praised Bowie's theme song but described the film as "an overbudget turkey of huge proportions".[22] 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".[23]

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 Quatermass 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."[24]

Absolute Beginners currently holds a 70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 10 reviews.[25]

Box office[edit]

Goldcrest Films invested £4,680,000 in the film and received £1,859,000 back, losing £2,821,000.[26]


  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. ^ "Austriancharts.at – Soundtrack – Absolute Beginners" (in German). Hung Medien. Retrieved 27 July 2023.
  12. ^ "Dutchcharts.nl – Soundtrack – Absolute Beginners" (in Dutch). Hung Medien. Retrieved 27 July 2023.
  13. ^ Pennanen, Timo (2021). "Soundtrackit". Sisältää hitin - 2. laitos Levyt ja esittäjät Suomen musiikkilistoilla 1.1.1960–30.6.2021 (PDF) (in Finnish). Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava. p. 290.
  14. ^ "Offiziellecharts.de – Soundtrack – Absolute Beginners" (in German). GfK Entertainment Charts. Retrieved 27 July 2023.
  15. ^ "Swedishcharts.com – Soundtrack – Absolute Beginners". Hung Medien. Retrieved 27 July 2023.
  16. ^ "Swisscharts.com – Soundtrack – Absolute Beginners". Hung Medien. Retrieved 27 July 2023.
  17. ^ "Official Albums Chart Top 100". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 27 July 2023.
  18. ^ "Court and Social". The Daily Telegraph. 4 April 1986. p. 14.
  19. ^ "Absolute Beginners The Musical (advertisement)". Evening Standard. 4 April 1986. p. 21.
  20. ^ James, Caryn (18 April 1986). "Rock Musical 'Beginners'". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved 6 May 2016.
  21. ^ Kael, Pauline (2011) [1991]. 5001 Nights at the Movies. Henry Holt and Company. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-250-03357-4.
  22. ^ Allen, Jeremy (3 December 2014). "David Bowie: 10 of the best". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  23. ^ Creekmur, Corey K. (2013). The International Film Musical. Edinburgh University Press. p. 26. ISBN 978-0748634774.
  24. ^ Stewart, Alex (July 1986). "2020 Vision". White Dwarf (79). Games Workshop: 18.
  25. ^ "Absolute Beginners (1986)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 11 August 2023.
  26. ^ Eberts, Jake; Illott, Terry (1990). My indecision is final. Faber and Faber. p. 656. ISBN 9780571148882.
  • 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]