My final Scalarama viewing was Julien Temple’s amped up musical Absolute Beginners. It was the second of two films I saw during the festival that have been re-released for their 30th anniversaries, the other being Sid and Nancy. As I said in my first post, I was excited to see both again, as it had been a long time since I first watched them on TV with my brother as a film-obsessed teenager.
There were certain parts in both that had stuck in my memory. In Sid and Nancy it was particularly those later scenes in New York’s Chelsea Hotel that sprung to mind. When I first went to New York City, as well as the hundreds of other images conjured up from films, this is what I expected: fire escapes, everything in washed out colour, and an undercurrent of violence or an unnerving sense that something bad was going to happen.
But even these were a lot more beautiful than I remember. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is stunning and makes some of the offstage chaos almost like a performance in itself. For example, the infamous boat-trip up the Thames. As the boat moors and the police move in, Sid and Nancy slowly walk through the clashing officers and punks unscathed and oblivious, as if in their own dream-like bubble. Or their iconic kiss up against a dumpster as the rubbish falls around their heads, like leaves in a romantic woodland love scene. And although I’ve not experienced a Sex Pistols gig, the frenetic mayhem appears to be captured perfectly, so you feel right in amongst it.
In contrast to the grit of a British 1979, Absolute Beginners begins with a huge technicolor musical bang, tipping its hat left right and centre to the greats of the golden era like West Side Story and Singin’ in the Rain. The sets have that unreal quality—you know the rain on the floor has been hosed on and the buildings are merely fronts. But you don’t care. What are jolting are the agitated percussion and uneasy movement as if you’re watching a dress rehearsal where the camera and the cast are not quite in sync, or contradictorily an over-rehearsed parody. I was not always totally sure how much was on purpose. However for all this glamour and colour of the recreated Soho streets, it was the scenes set in the jarring grey rundown post-war British streets, where the race riots begin that I remembered most from my youth. Which is strange as I loved a musical then and would’ve felt very at home on the singing and dancing lot. Maybe because this is where the real drama takes place, unlike the musical Carry-On on acid, whose plotline cannot always be absorbed, as it is an assault on your senses which leaves you wide-eyed and shaking your head, halfway between bemusement and relish.
Although each film was set in a different time period to when it was made, both had the imprint of 1986 on them. Absolute Beginners is late fifties, charting the rise of the rebellious teenager and Sid and Nancy is of course the dawn of punk in Britain, as the youth rebel again to form another sub culture. Yet the fashion is slightly tailored for the 80s audience. Patsy Kensit’s 50s off the shoulder frocks and Nancy’s mini skirts, both sporting tousled or combed back hair just giveaway the era they were made.
And of course, Absolute Beginners is brimming with 80s music stars. The joy of seeing Ray Davies (I know, more 60s) sing a self-penned song and dance with a giant Hoover is the highlight of the film, as well as hearing Sade’s velvety tones again. Yet in all this exaggerated pastiche, which at times is exhausting, the biggest star, David Bowie, looks totally at home. And is sickeningly cool—even when dancing on a giant typewriter. Not dissimilar to Gary Oldman’s snarling Sid Vicious strutting up a neon lit staircase whilst singing My Way. Like Bowie, when Oldman is on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him. He manages to capture the maniacal unpredictable Vicious without ever overacting.
Even though each film is very different to the other, both are love stories with dark undertones. Sid and Nancy is a brilliant film which captures the pandemonium of punk with genuine hilarity at times and gripping heightened drama, signposting its tragic end, and deserves to be seen as one of Britain’s best independent films of the decade.
Absolute Beginners is also worth revisiting to nostalgically enjoy some of the musical stars of the time, bending the genre to fit their style and suit the audience, alongside Julien Temple’s ambitious vision. And the historical backdrop of the piece is sadly very politically current once again. It just gets lost and you feel that they were unsure how to resolve it. So they just made it rain and everyone went inside for a party. A fitting British ending.