Sunday, January 6, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – Absolutely Wonderful

It almost singlehandedly sunk the British film industry in the mid 80s. It featured an uncomfortable mix of big musical production members and heavy social commentary. And at the time of its release, 15 years before a similarly unorthodox "Moulin Rouge" received Oscar acclaim, critics didn't know what to make of it.

I'm talking about Absolute Beginners, a 1986 film starring David Bowie and Patsy Kensit.
I first became aware of the film when I read a January 1986 cover story in Vanity Fair, written by renowned Beatles biographer Phillip Norman.

Accompanying the story, which delved into how director Julien Temple planned to put the British equivalent of "Catcher in the Rye" on the big screen, was an extraordinary collection of photographs of the film's characters. One way or another, I told myself, I am going to see that movie once it hit theaters.

In fact I watched it the very first week it came out during the summer of 1986. And it's fortunate that I did because it sank without a trace – both in the United States and in Britain, where its financial failure led to the collapse of Goldcrest, the studio behind Chariots of Fire and Gandhi.

No, it's not the greatest movie in the world. But its unique visual style hasn't really ever been matched. There's the one-shot opening sequence that Temple would later mimic in his "When I Think of You" video for Janet Jackson. Bowie's song-and-dance number for "That's Motivation." And the fight sequences that could have come out of West Side Story II: Tony's Revenge

A little bit later, I read the original book – by an author named Colin MacInnes – and loved it even more.

But I won't bore you any more about the movie (or the book). Every once in a while, it pops up on cable. And it's definitely worth catching.

What really made the movie cook was its music, which was given the jazzed-up treatment by Miles Davis collaborator Gil Evans. He composed some of the score and arranged many of the songs. Besides Bowie's contribution of the title track (the closest thing the soundtrack had to a hit single), there's Sade never sounding jazzier than on "Killer Blow;" "Flat Foot Floogie" man Slim Gaillard singing the rollicking "Selling Out"; a Bubble Gum pop song, "Little Cat," composed by none other than Nick Lowe; and the Style Council's "Have You Ever Had it Blue," a rearranged version of "With Everything to Lose" from My Favorite Shop (1985). (Paul Weller, as you may remember, wrote "Absolute Beginners" for The Jam's Snap (1983) album as a tribute to his favorite book).

Download "Have You Ever Had It Blue" by the Style Council

But for me, the soundtrack's absolute highlight is "Quiet Life" by Ray Davies. The longtime Kinks leader wrote and performed this whimsical look at the life of a hen-pecked husband in the film's most memorable scene. It's like an old dance hall tune, only with added bonus of Davies' characteristic wit about the human condition. In the film, Davies performs the song on a cutaway set of a house with different slapstick scenes in each room – including a few featuring his on-screen "wife" Mandy Rice-Davies, one of the central figures in the mid-60s Profumo scandal.

Download "Quiet Life" by Ray Davies

Even though many different composers worked on the soundtrack (another track that highlights its diversity: A reggae version of Miles Davis' "So What" by Smiley Culture) it still manages to flow together as an album. I bought the English import CD twenty years ago, which is the equivalent of a double-album. I'm happy to see that it has totally supplanted the shorter American version in the EMI catalog. Music this good should be enjoyed to its fullest.

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