You may have noticed by now that there’s a sort of accidental theme running through these cheesy films I’ve selected: most of them play somehow with time, particularly with time as a structure for musical genre.* The attempt to bring the 50s and the 80s together in Xanadu and Streets of Fire is as much an exploration of musical styles as it is of visual styles, and there’s a fascinating variety of ways and reasons to do it. Xanadu‘s game is mostly about tribute and memory, and attempt to marry past and then-present while still respecting their distinctness. Streets of Fire is more interested in creating something new out of the mix, synthesizing styles into a different musical and visual world.
Of all of my cheesy films, only Absolute Beginners is actually an 80s film about the (late) 50s. The script is based on a Colin MacInnes novel about a freelance photographer, and it charts the growth of teen pop culture, the gentrification of poor neighborhoods, and racial tensions (the big finale is the Notting Hill race riots of 1958). The film’s very critical look at teen culture (particularly at the exploitative side of it) is a distant grandchild of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, starkly highlighting the difference between how young people see themselves and how their elders try to configure the post-war teen identity (“Absolute Beginners”) for profit.
Unlike the other films I’ve talked about in this series, the dominant musical sensibility in Absolute Beginners is cool jazz, not rock (although the title track that David Bowie wrote and performed for the film charted as a pop/rock tune both in the US and the UK). Here’s Bowie performing it live in 2000:
Visually, it is also much more obviously done in the late 50s spirit than the 80s — its neon is old, and the scooters and Mod threads make it ever so much smoother and cooler than the gritty style melange of Streets of Fire or the stranger punk and New Wave representations that occasionally show up in Xanadu. The world is flashy and strange and deliciously vibrant — it’s full of saturated colors and sharp designs set against old London buildings and dirty streets. Its side characters are as colorful as its sets — pimps and prostitutes, rent-boys and lesbian madams, musicians and dope-heads, Teddy boys and racist thugs, sleazy music promoters and slick ad execs, and the protagonist (unnamed in the novel, called “Colin” in the film) drifts among them all with his camera and never really sees what he shoots until the end, taking sleazy pictures for money and mooning over his (ex)girlfriend, Suzette. The role of Suzette was a big break for Patsy Kensit, and the film features musical performances by David Bowie, Sade Adu, and jazz great Slim Gaillard.
The music and the settings are the real stars of this movie; plot-wise, it loses much of the depth and conflict of the novel, and the ending is anticlimactic at best. It never quite pulls together into a finished story, which one tends not to mind because of the music and the sights. Director Julien Temple obviously put a lot of thought into the elaborate and lavishly filmed musical numbers (including a big, wonderfully weird house set for a tune by the Kinks’ Ray Davies called “Quiet Life”). The Slim Gaillard number is a classic combo of 80s visual sensibility and straight-up 50s style:
While Eddie O’Connell does just fine as the film’s narrator/protagonist, his Colin is constantly overshadowed by the other characters. In a way, that’s is entirely appropriate — in the novel, written in the first person, the protagonist never even has a name, and the focus is entirely on other people and events. Still, on-screen that approach just isn’t as effective. There really isn’t much energy in the relationship between Colin and Suzette, either, which is unfortunate given how much of the story focuses on it. One wants to leave the story behind altogether and just walk the streets of London with this mad cast of background characters, and because the tale itself seems to pull that way, it drags the whole movie with it.
One wants, in the end, to sell out. This is not an optimistic movie, although it does have a happy-ish ending for the protagonist. It’s the music and the colors that live here, not the story (unfortunately, because it’s actually a pretty cool story). Still…isn’t the music enough?
One imagines a lot of the characters in the story saying: Yes.
*Obviously Rock & Rule doesn’t fit with Xanadu and Streets of Fire. It’s the main exception here, and it does something different. Its fantasy relies on a post-apocalyptic setting that’s built on the ruins of history, and it’s always funny to see what the mutant rats and cats and dogs have kept from the human world that died.
The rest of the series, if you’re so inclined: