The Novel

As things are, I won't regret it when the teenage label's torn off the arse pockets of my drip-dry sky-blue jeans (11).

Our working-class narrator, "Blitz Baby" to his mum, in the final summer of his teenage years, hangs out at jazz clubs, rides his Vespa, and makes money by taking photos. These include legitimate attempts to establish himself as a serious photographer, and illicit shots for the porn trade. He wrestles with family relationships: his thuggish half-brother, his promiscuous mother, and his broken father, with whom he most hopes to develop and reaffirm his family bond. It's 1958, and British youth have money and a country not under attack. Of course, west London neighbourhoods like his remain blighted by the war. Kids run amok, Teddy Boys stalk the streets, and tensions grow between the white underclass and the growing immigrant population. He loves his neighbourhood, but he often escapes to Soho and other more exotic London locales.

In the final section of the book, he becomes involved in the Notting Hill race riots, on the side of the persecuted. He has several non-white acquaintances, and despises both the overt racism of his time and the political manipulation of working-class white fears. He shares these views with "Wizard," his frankly disturbed best friend, and "Mr. Cool," a young man of mixed race who lives in his building.

More than anything, he longs for Suzette, the love of his life, who has taken up with her fashion designer boss, Henley in order to advance her career.

Colin Macinnes writes well, and several aspects of the story hold up. The reawakened relationship between father and son gradually grows into something real, if slightly tragic. The narrator's mod voice remains readable and frequently fresh.

How accurate is it? Macinnes was 44 when he wrote the book, and I can't honestly say how astute his observations on the teen scene then might be. I believe someone like his narrator could have existed. Aspects have dated badly, however. The non-white characters, for the most part, are poorly-sketched representations, too often played for exoticism and to display the white narrator's racial tolerance. I suspect many readers will find the sexual politics equally problematic. Granted, aspects of all books date, and this one has the excuse of a first-person narrator. We're reading his views, after all, and he's the product of a time and place. However, AB carries a whiff of printer's ink. We're supposed to be having our eyes open to the times, the music, the changing racial attitudes and make-up of England, and the generation who will soon come to power. Our protagonist has a lesbian friend named Big Jill who makes money as a pimp. He drops a reference to LSD long before its ascendancy in pop culture. What might have read as revolutionary at the time cannot, by itself, recommend a novel decades later.

Colin Macinnes found significant success, particularly with his "London Trilogy" of novels. Of these Absolute Beginners remains the most popular, and Macinnes retains a reputation as a cult author. I only moderately enjoyed the book, but one still encounters readers, mostly people who came of age in the late 1950s and 1960s, who consider it life-changing.

The Movie

In 1986, music video director Julien Temple finally achieved his dream of filming the beloved novel, and he managed to sink Goldcrest Films in the process. To hear some people tell it, he destroyed British filmmaking for years. Absolutely beautiful but completely incoherent, this film loosely adapts the novel into a musical, and at great cost.

It begins well, with our photographer, here called Colin (Eddie O'Connell), getting ready for the night, talking to a living photo of his dreamgirl, Crêpe Suzette (Patsy Kensit), and then stepping out and onto his Vespa and into the most eyeball-kicking 1980s music video ever made.

The production company built an hallucinatory 1958 Soho in the studio. Colin moves from his apartment and between locations (and other costly sets, including his parents' building), and returns, always to the lights of Soho. We see him, literally, living the dream, 1950s bohe style. The mise en scène also borrows elements of the 1980s, deliberate hints of anachronism. Music abounds, in the background, the club, and the various production numbers.

The film boasts a remarkable supporting cast. Ray Davies of The Kinks and Mandy Rice-Davies of the Profumo Scandal have been stunt-cast as the hero's parents. They play their supporting roles to perfection, but much of Colin's relationship with his dad has been sidelined by musical numbers and visual spectacle. David Bowie, approached to write music and sing, also landed the role of adman Vendice Partners as a part of the deal. Sade has a smooth cameo as a nightclub singer. Decorating the labyrinthine sets we find interesting-looking people, many of them not actors.

Alas, an already meandering novel meanders so much in adaptation that any sense of a plot or point gets lost. Some individual moments hold up very well, but a movie must be more than its individual moments. Absolute Beginners left an impressive soundtrack and a visual style that cost too much to achieve and must be seen to be believed.

The Song

David Bowie wrote the title song as part of his contract with Goldcrest. It went to #2 in the UK and became a modest hit elsewhere. It sounds a little like "Heroes," and forms part of another shift in Bowie's career after Let's Dance. Most of the same musicians also appear in the Bowie/Jagger Live Aid-cover of "Dancing in the Street," recorded at the same time but released earlier. Bowie croons; Don Weller blows a memorable sax solo.

Its place as one of Bowie's greatest hits became solidified over time. It has been rereleased, covered, and featured on various Bowie compilation albums. The video directed, predictably, by Temple, features Bowie and a dancer wandering around nighttime b&w London, frequently encountering colour footage from the film.

As time moves on, the song remains the most widely-recognized legacy of Absolute Beginners.

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