London 1958, and it's a long hot summer the residents have to contend with, which all appears to be leading up to a pressure cooker situation which teenage Colin (Eddie O'Connell) is actually pretty excited about, but then he's at an age where life can seem that way no matter what is happening. He is beginning to make his name as a photographer, but he's more interested in his girlfriend Suzette (Patsy Kensit), a budding fashion designer who he fears losing to another man. In this highly charged atmosphere, who knows what could happen?
How about the British film industry suffering such a blow that it had to turn to television to make sure anything was being made in its name whatsoever? Such was the case with Absolute Beginners, the can't fail production from the unsteady Goldcrest which had all the hopes of the country riding on it, only to see them crumble when the final product was revealed to be sorely lacking. Naturally such things tend to gather a cult following, and a musical starring a roster of British talent both old and new was going to contain some elements of interest to movie fans, especially those who were keen on Brit pop culture which this owed so much to.
Which meant the cast were filled out with ageing celebs and current music raves alike in bit parts: where else could you see Irene Handl rubbing shoulders with Smiley Culture and Sandie Shaw, or Ray Davies of the Kinks married to Mandy Rice Davies of Profumo scandal fame, or Sade turning up for one song, which was what supposed star David Bowie pretty much did as well? Not wanting for curiosity value, then, but there was a sense that no matter how much money had been thrown at it (which was plenty), no matter how prodigiously ingenious director Julien Temple had been in keeping it together and keeping it innovative, there was something deeply naff about the end result.
Not helping was that this was based on one of the major British cult novels of the fifties, considered on a level with On The Road in its home nation, and to that original's fans this was nothing short of a travesty, a bastardisation of a vivid and vital classic. Except that in its way, the film was vivid and vital too, but not in the manner which appealed to anyone other than someone still riding the early eighties nostalgia for the fifties which by 1986 was dying out as times moved on - just ask Shakin' Stevens. Also in the disadvantage column was O'Connell, plucked from obscurity to star as the novelist's alter ego, only looking as if he'd be far more comfortable fronting a TV lager ad campaign.
As for Kensit, she got but one big scene in spite of her name above the title status, supposedly the next big Brit megastar but starring here did her no favours, especially as that big scene was a rather embarrassing one at a fashion show where she runs riot in a customised (i.e. ruined) dress. Apart from that, she had to be unhappily married to aloof designer James Fox and spend her time pining after Colin, not the proactive role she might have done wonders with if given the chance. Bowie had even less screen time, and for reasons best known to himself chose to essay the role of evil developer with a very strange accent; it was saying something that Ray Davies' self-penned number as Colin's dad overshadowed the Thin White Duke's try at a showstopper.
And Bowie had the major hit single from the movie, too. As long as this was sending up the post-war transition to the coming of the Swinging Sixties, it was on a fairly even keel, but once that was adapted into a sincere examination of the Notting Hill race riots which blighted the capital, as businessmen capitalised on prejudice to try and force out non-white residents of poor neighbourhoods to redevelop them, it was on shakier ground. As the grand finale took place during those disturbances, with Steven Berkoff showing up as a rabble-rousing fascist and Bruce Payne as his violent disciple, you can understand these sequences were crucial to the film's credibility, so perhaps staging the fighting as dancing was, well, a misstep. West Side Story hadn't really been cool since about 1966, and bringing up memories of how the establishment didn't "get" the cultural melting pot London was becoming would have been better if Absolute Beginners didn't seem similarly clueless. It was a case of brave try, but you could see why this was no blockbuster.