Absolute Beginners (film)

Absolute Beginners is a 1986 British musical film adapted from Colin MacInnes' book of the same name 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. The film was screened out of competition at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.[4]

Absolute Beginners
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJulien Temple
Produced by
Written byRichard Burridge
Christopher Wicking
Don MacPherson
Music byGil Evans
CinematographyOliver Stapleton
Edited byGerry Hambling
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]

Upon release, Absolute Beginners received immense coverage in the British media. At the time, the British film industry was perceived as being on the point of collapse (with the recent failure of the film Revolution). However, the film was panned by critics and became a box office bomb. Some of the criticisms included stylistic anachronisms, such as the mini-skirt and decidedly 1980s music from the likes of The Style Council and Sade, the bowdlerisation of Kensit's character (Crepe Suzette had been depicted as a promiscuous "negrophile" in the book), and the casting of Bowie, who made it a condition of his musical contribution. Although the film was not a success, Bowie's theme song was very popular in the UK and reached number two in the charts.

The commercial failure of Absolute Beginners and another film released about the same time, The Mission, led to the collapse of Goldcrest, a major British film studio.


The film takes place in 1958, a time in which pop culture is transforming from 1950s jazz and early rock to a new generation on the verge of the 1960s. London is post-World War II, but pre-Beatles/Stones. The storyline incorporates elements of the 1958 Notting Hill race riots.

Young photographer Colin falls in love with aspiring fashion designer Crepe Suzette but she's only interested in her career. Colin tries to win her affections by taking a crack at the big time himself. Meanwhile, racial tensions heat up in Colin's neighbourhood of London.



Christopher Wicking did an early draft of the script which he said "had some sort of propulsion from one scene to the next".[5] 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.[5]

$2.5 million of the film's budget came from Orion and £2.5 million from Goldcrest.[6]


Absolute Beginners: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Soundtrack album by
Various Artists
Released7 April 1986 (1986-04-07)
LabelVirgin Records
ProducerClive Langer & Alan Winstanley
Singles from Absolute Beginners: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
  1. "Absolute Beginners"
    Released: 3 March 1986

Absolute Beginners: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack was concurrently released to promote the film. Aside from the plethora of music from contributing artists, the musical score was composed by Gil Evans. David Bowie's title track, Ray Davies' "Quiet Life" and the Style Council's songs were released as singles. Tracks 11-18 were exclusive to the CD version.



Writing in The New York Times, film critic Caryn James was largely unmoved by the film and remarked upon the "unevenness" of Temple's adaptation, and its "erratic" results.[7] Elsewhere Pauline Kael declared that, despite Temple's bona fides, the musical is "peculiarly unlyrical and ephemeral".[8] Comparing it unfavorably to MacInnes' novel, she wrote: "The film has a glossy immediacy, and you can feel the flash and determination that went into it. What you don't feel is the tormented romanticism that made English adolescents in the '70s swear by the novel the way American kids had earlier sworn by The Catcher in the Rye."[8]

Jeremy Allen in The Guardian praised Bowie's theme song but described the film as "an overbudget turkey of huge proportions".[9]

Corey K. Creekmur stated in The International Film Musical that although the film "failed to deliver on the critical expectations surrounding it", it remained "a deeply interesting, if flawed, attempt to harness the contemporary musical in the services of politics and social equality".[10]

Absolute Begiiners currently holds a 79% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on nine reviews.[11]

Box Office

Goldcrest Films invested £4,680,000 in the film and received £1,859,000 back, losing £2,821,000.[12]


Julien Temple later recalled:

Making Absolute Beginners was a nightmare. It was like having a bee in your ear that wouldn't go away. We were gate-crashing a club that we weren't meant to be part of. It just wasn't possible to take British youth culture as the subject for a big British film that would appeal to a wide audience. We had to get the publicity going, shove it on the front of magazines and say, look, this is worth spending money on. We got caught up in an avalanche about how important teen culture had been - but we unleashed too much. The film, from being the great white hope of the Brit film industry, became the albatross that destroyed it. I was very badly burned. I decided, having spoken too much about that film before it came out, never to speak about anything again until the time is right.[13]


  1. "Absolute Beginners (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 18 March 1986. Retrieved 19 October 2016.
  2. Walker p. 33
  3. Walker p. 54
  4. "Festival de Cannes: Absolute Beginners". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 17 July 2009.
  5. All's Well That Ends: an interview with Chris Wicking Monthly Film Bulletin; London Vol. 55, Iss. 658, (1 Nov 1988): 322.
  6. "Bad Beginning." Sunday Times [London, England] 15 June 1986: 45. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
  7. James, Caryn (18 April 1986). "Rock Musical 'Beginners'". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved 6 May 2016.
  8. Kael, Pauline (2011) [1991]. 5001 Nights at the Movies. Henry Holt and Company. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-250-03357-4.
  9. Allen, Jeremy (3 December 2014). "David Bowie: 10 of the best". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  10. Creekmur, Corey K. (2013). The International Film Musical. Edinburgh University Press. p. 26. ISBN 978-0748634774.
  11. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/absolute_beginners
  12. Eberts, Jake; Illott, Terry (1990). My indecision is final. Faber and Faber. p. 656.
  13. Film: Johnny Rotten, Coleridge and me From punk high to Absolute Beginners low, director Julien Temple has `f elt' the critics. Now he's back - and wiser.: [FINAL Edition] Walsh, John. The Independent; London (UK) [London (UK)]28 May 1999: 13.
  • Walker, Alexander, Icons in the Fire: The Rise and Fall of Practically Everyone in the British Film Industry 1984-2000, Orion Books, 2005
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