Q&A: Absolute Beginners featuring David Bowie, Patsy Kensit and Julien Temple

WHERE: BFI

WHEN: 22/9

Director Julien Temple has just seen his film Absolute Beginners (1986) on the big screen at the BFI and he is complaining it was shown out of focus and is an ‘abomination’.

It’s not perhaps what we were expecting and he explains that the film went over budget on its elaborate Soho sets and Temple was removed from it after shooting and took no part in its editing. He talks about the possibility of starting a crowd funding campaign to have the film re-edited.

Earlier he spoke of his love for Colin MacInnes’ cult novel set in 1958 which is a love story about teenagers played by Kensit and Eddie O’Connell set against a background of London as a cultural melting pot but susceptible to racial bigotry and rioting in the streets.

Temple explains his love for the source material: ‘It’s one of the most fundamental novels of London. I came into a world of The Kinks and the Stones and this is before that. I couldn’t believe someone was capturing it with such cynicism and optimism.’ Kensit, who is watching the film for the first time tonight in the almost 30 years since its release, remembers: ‘It was so colourful. I felt educated after reading that book.’

Asked why he made a musical, Temple explains the inspiration was from the novel: ‘MacInnes describes the feeling of walking down Shaftesbury Avenue and thinking one day people would make musicals about this. I read that and thought: ‘Let’s do this.’

If those Soho scenes look authentic, it’s much to do with the fact that many of the extras were brought into the studios after their nights out there. ‘It may have been lunchtime but their Soho night was carrying on.’

The problem with hype

Asked to explain the film’s hostile critical reception and weak takings, both agree it was over-hyped. Temple explains: ‘Initially we couldn’t get this film made so we had to get people like The Face and the NME to write about it. They started writing about it. We were able to get it made because people were talking about it but we couldn’t survive it.’

Kensit points out that her 16-year-old now knows what movie Tom Hardy is going to make in 2018. ‘Hype is not a dirty word anymore. It’s just a matter of building something up.’

Absolute Beginners was criticised on its release because of its contemporary soundtrack. Temple, a renowned video director at the time of the film’s release, explains David Bowie (who appears in the film and wrote the title track) contacted him after seeing Temple’s Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, expressing a love of Soho. ‘I got on well with him. I hung out with him. He needed a younger brother at that time.’

Lead singer of The Kinks Ray Davies also appears in the film despite a notoriously prickly reputation. Temple explains that he knew the band through watching them drink in a north London pub local to them all.

Absolute Beginners may not have been well received in the UK but it travelled well and Temple received a call from Michael and Janet Jackson who were both fans, Temple later directing Janet’s When I Think Of You video in a similar style.

Temple may be agitated by re-watching the film but Kensit describes being ‘reconciled’ with it and her admiration for Temple is clear. ‘I’m so glad I sat through and watched it. Julien, I think you’re incredible.’

  • Did Absolute Beginners break down all the barriers for Hairspray? Trailer.
  • The BFI regularly hosts cast Q&As. More details here. This event was part of the BFI’s London on Film season.

Patsy highlights:

David Bowie sings Absolute Beginners:

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