`Absolute Beginners': musings on film musicals `Absolute Beginners': what happened to musicals?

If ever a format needed redefining, it's the movie musical. The genre that gave us beauties like ``Swing Time'' in the '30s, ``Meet Me in St. Louis'' in the '40s, and ``Singin' in the Rain'' in the '50s has long vanished -- in its classic form -- from the screen. Its last gasp came in the '70s with disappointments like ``Fiddler on the Roof'' and clunkers like ``The Little Prince.''

Attempts to find new approaches have resulted in such interesting one-shots as ``Cabaret'' and ``Pennies From Heaven,'' but they've produced no successful offspring. For the past decade or so, the only films to nod firmly in the direction of movie-musical tradition have hedged their songs and dances with paradoxically grim subject matter, as in ``All That Jazz,'' or filled their leading roles with Muppets.

In saying this, I take for granted that so-called rock musicals aren't really musicals at all, in the time-honored sense. They're a thing apart, aimed at a primarily young audience that has drawn its pop-music experience from radio disc jockeys rather than Broadway shows. One or two of the early rock musicals (especially the epic ``Tommy'') suggested that rock-and-roll might bring a fresh energy and inventiveness to film musicals, but that hope was swamped by a wave of junk like ``Grease'' and ``Can't Stop the Music,'' among many others. By now it seems that the traditional musical has expired for good, and that the rock musical (along with its somewhat more creative cousin, the country-music film) is stuck in a dull rut.

If there's a way out of this predicament, it may be suggested by the newest of all audiovisual forms: the music video, spawned by cable TV and currently gaining attention (like ``video art'' and cinema before it) on the museum circuit. Video-crafted shorts called ``music zaps'' are already an attraction at some theaters, and now a feature film has arrived that combines a whole arsenal of music-video mannerisms with gambits borrowed from older movie-musical forms.

``Absolute Beginners'' is the name of this odd hybrid. The story, about a young photographer who sells out his principles for money, takes place in London during the late '50s -- a time when classic jazz and rock styles (bebop and doo-wop, respectively) were about to be replaced by a new wave of pop music (from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and others) that would sweep the world.

The movie starts with a long burst of stylized action that recalls many a TV video with its aggressive music, rambunctious choreography, and angular editing. Yet this is no simple transposition of MTV to the big screen. With its period iconography, urban locale, teeming cast of extras, and production-number scope, the action recalls venerable Hollywood styles, as well.

Not that ``Absolute Beginners'' directly copies specific musicals or videos. Its makers have simply drawn on Hollywood ideas appropriate to its period (roughly 30 years ago) as well as up-to-the-minute maneuvers used by music-video directors. The result is peculiar, to be sure, but more stylistically stimulating than most of this season's factory-made pictures.

This being the case, it's too bad the whole movie doesn't live up to the promise it shows at the start. While the story remains more or less stylized, it bogs down in giggly vulgarity and eruptions of nasty violence that aren't justified by the film's cautionary theme of youthful idealism up against fascist hate and power-lust.

Still, some of the music is far more inventive than the disco-drivel that infests so many films these days, and the plot raises warnings about racism and materialism that are as valid today as they were three decades ago. Also refreshing is the varied cast, which includes not only new faces but such veterans as singer Ray Davies, actor James Fox, and singer/actor David Bowie.

``Absolute Beginners'' was directed by Julien Temple. The music was arranged and conducted by jazz great Gil Evans, and has a strong Charles Mingus flavor during the exciting sequence at the beginning. The picture's rating, reflecting its excesses of word and image, is ``R.''

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