The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile:
What’s Worse Than a Bad Musical?
You know, those whole Olympics opening and closing ceremonies got me thinking: There are few other things more embarrassing than an awful musical. For someone who fits my taste demographic, there was apt potential for these cultural spectaculars to be totally earth-shattering in relevance and genius. They were not. In fact, the only thing that kept running through my brain as I dutifully attempted to watch each program (besides: Where was the U.S. broadcast of the Kate Bush performance?) was another totally, unsuitably bad musical about London in one of its many triumphant social epochs, Absolute Beginners.
I’m aware that this movie is a cult classic. I’m also aware that it’s based on a mostly autobiographical 1959 novel by Colin MacInnes that is, in some circles, considered the On the Road of UK youth counterculture. Taking place in 1958, Absolute Beginners (dir. Julien Temple, usually renown for his artful handling of music and subculture) celebrates the time of the teenager in postwar London, the advent of rock & roll, jazz clubs, and the working-class surplus of money that inspired fashion movements like the Mods and Skinheads. Despite all these trifling distractions, the protagonist, Colin, gets chummy with the seedy underworld, including teen pimps, junkies, and homosexual prostitutes. At its heart, however, the book is a forthright account of race, as it takes place in the days leading up to the Notting Hill Riots (the 54th anniversary of which we are rapidly approaching).
It would make sense, then, that a filmic version of this seminal novel might require some time and careful planning to put together. What emerged in 1986, though, while still aiming to be a thoughtful treatment of racial tension, is as neon, anachronistic, poorly acted, and as low camp as one can imagine. Plus, it’s a musical.
Because the marketing of teeny-bopper pop tarts with greased-up ducktails and the too-cool spliff-smoking West Carribbean jazz trumpeters serve as cultural backdrops in the novel, I suppose it made sense to the developers to throw a bunch of awkward dance numbers into the mix. They also managed to inflate the hype by calling up a bunch of British musical legends to make truncated appearances, so don’t be fooled by this setlist: David Bowie, Sade, the Style Council, and Ray fucking Davies. Yeah, that’s right; the first three, sure, that sounds like an ’80s movie all right. But Ray Davies? Easily one of the most influential rock songwriters of the century? He makes a well-intentioned appearance for about ten minutes as Colin’s severely milquetoast father, withering away in his prewar memories and helpless against his nymphomaniac wife. By the time his song and dance is over, he’s never heard from again, and the viewer just sits there, blinking in confusion.
More over, David Bowie, who has been known to act, somewhat, elsewhere, is basically horrid in his role as Vendice Partners, a predatory ad agent who latches onto Colin as some kind of counter-cultural ambassador. (Eddie O’Connell, who plays Colin, was cast solely for his Bowie-look-alikeness and little else, as far as I can tell.) Bowie speaks in this funny, gobbled voice, like a bad Edward R. Murrow impression. It’s my understanding that his appearance in the film was conditional upon the use of his anthemic titular single, but by the time he gets to do what he does best, the number, "That’s Motivation," a siren song to lure Colin into the licentious and glamorous world of, uh, marketing (at one point he sings on a giant TV set, another on an oversized pile of frozen dinners in full Everest gear), is probably the lowest moment in Bowie’s career, not to mention the whole genre of musical cinema. And this is coming from someone who adores Li’l Abner.
The real problem with Absolute Beginners is that there isn’t much consistency. The music performances serve mostly as a Greek chorus, narrating Colin’s inner monologue for us instead of using the songs to further the plot. There are moments of a character breaking into song, though, that strike unevenly with the rest of the mood. The movie approaches but ultimately fumbles as a British parallel to camp-musical classics (that still address class and race) like John Waters’s Hairspray or Crybaby, because it doesn’t let itself be campy enough, and this is, most painfully, its failure as even a bad-good film.
Another potentially bad musical opened last week, the remake of Sparkle, which everyone will watch simply because it’s Whitney Houston’s last onscreen performance before her passing in February. Incidentally, the original Sparkle (dir. Sam O’Steen, 1976) is another musical set in 1958, but this time, across the ocean in Harlem. (It’s my understanding that the 2012 version is set in Detroit.) The true sparkle of the original, however, is not the acting, which is as canned as a weak exploitation film, but the music, penned by the immortal Curtis Mayfield. Mayfield’s soundtracks are possibly more famous than the man himself, but if you’re a fan, those whimsical woodwind-and-violin swirls and meaty backbeats reliably inhabit every song (despite sounding perhaps a little funkier in the age of doo-wop than might be plausible). The biggest hit (by Aretha Franklin or En Vogue, depending on your generation), "Something He Can Feel," is eternally sultry, crisp, and electric.
But our protagonist is too wimpy—poor Irene Cara, in the days before she craved fame, is too good-hearted, naive, and self-conscious to ascend as a star. (According to the New York Times, Jordin Sparks's rendition reads equally tepid.) Even though she eventually gets there, it’s not on her own ambition. Never has a protagonist been so timid and ambivalent about making it to the top, and after her troubled firecracker sister, named Sister (Lonette McKee), disappears from the film, we’re left with little else than Mayfield’s compositions to believe in.
Luckily, the Mayfield songs have made it into the 2012 version, with a little help from the batshit Pied Piper of Soul, R. Kelly, and others. I haven’t ruled out all hope that the update will achieve all the potential of the original, but without the grittiness of 1950s Harlem as a backdrop, and the loss of grizzly, vérité-feeling crowd shots, I’m just not sure that the rough charm of the original will make it through.