Tuesday, August 4, 2020


Best-known as the home of one of David Bowie's better soundtrack songs, Absolute Beginners was a 1986 British film that looked at racial and cultural challenges of late 1950's London. Directed by Julien Temple, who had previously collaborated with Bowie on the "Jazzin' For Blue Jean" video, the movie saw several musicians cast in roles, including Bowie, Ray Davies, Sade, and, quite poorly, co-lead Patsy Kensit. The movie was a bust, lost a ton of money, but the soundtrack proved a much more worthy project.

Bowie was commissioned to write the theme song and really came through, presenting a cut that was much, much superior to his most recent material on the Tonight album. It was lost in North America, coming from a film that got no box office traction here, but the single was a huge hit elsewhere, hitting #2 in England, and going top ten in several other countries. He contributed two other songs to the double album (reissued now as two CD's), but neither are essential for fans. His "That's Motivation" is character-driven for his part in the film, and if you've ever thought you had to hear his version of the classic Italian crooner "Volare," you're dead wrong.

However, the rest of the soundtrack is quite a fine listen. The film looks at jazz culture in England, and uses a lot of cool vocals and brassy orchestrated numbers. On board was the great Gil Evans, in one of his final projects. The famous Miles Davis collaborator arranged several cuts, and composed all the instrumental music. It is rich, detailed, sometimes curious and always arresting, It's probably better not to see the film, but rather imagine what it hints at.

There were more hits on the album, including The Style Council's "Have you Ever Had It Blue?" and Ray Davies' first-ever solo single, "Quiet Life". Sade turns in a fine non-album cut, "Killer Blow" and reggae great Laurel Aitken provided the lively "Landlords & Tenants" for that element of the movie's cultural mix. Two really intriguing pieces close each disc. The Specials' Jerry Dammers was brought in to score a fight sequence, and handed in a brilliant, eight-minute montage that saw him embrace film music tropes with some of his zaniness. And Evans put together a closing number with British reggae singer Smiley Culture with new lyrics to his classic Kind Of Blue number "So What." If it wasn't such a lark, it might have been sacrilege to fans of Miles Davis, but clearly Evans was telling us to open our ears to music, not keep it in closets. If the movie had been any good at all, this soundtrack might be far more renowned today.

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