“… I had this weird, squeaky voice on the phone saying, ‘Hey, it’s Michael here’. I was like, ‘Hello. Michael who?’
And he said, ‘Michael Jackson. Janet and I would like to invite you over to the family home. We dance to Absolute Beginners. We would like to perform it for you.’” – Julien Temple talks to Greg Wetherall about his notorious film Absolute Beginners on the eve of its first-ever Blu Ray release 31 years on.
First, it’s important that we set the scene. The year is 1985, and the wheels are put in motion to release the most expensive British film ever made. It is a rock musical adaptation of a book by Colin MacInnes. It has a young and hip director at the helm in the form of Julien Temple. It is going to offer the first lead role for a young Patsy Kensit and will also star David Bowie, alongside mega-selling act du jour, Sade. Ray Davies of the Kinks will contribute musically and make an appearance. So far, so good.
Upon release, however, it tanks. The film is widely derided as a turkey. This can happen. So what? Well, what happened next was unprecedented: its commercial failure was said to bring about the bankruptcy of a major British film studio, Goldcrest.
For Julien Temple, it would cause many problems. For one, he would be cast into the wilderness in his home country. But now it is time to talk about it once more, as the film is re-released in a stunning (it has to be said) Blu Ray print.
We talked to Temple about working with Bowie, the Stones, Neil Young, Dr Feelgood’s place in the music scene and much, much more.
What are your feelings looking back on Absolute Beginners now?
Well, they’re very conflicted. A ‘half-nightmare, half-dream’ memory that I have of it. I had to leave England as a result of it to try and get work in the States, so it hung around my neck for many years here. I have to blame myself, as much as anything else. I think there are great moments in it, but I think there are great flaws, which there are with many films. I think it doesn’t stop you from enjoying it, but in my heart of hearts, I know that I could have done it better. I didn’t get to finish the edit properly, so that’s always bugged me as well.
I was taken off of it. They fired us at the end of the shoot. They had three editors: one for the beginning, one for the middle and one for the end. They chopped it around for six months, so that at Christmas we could come in and try and make sense of it, but we’d only have Christmas to do it. The famous opening shot they’d cut up into a thousand pieces, so we spent most of the time trying to put that back together again. It was a nightmare.
Anyway, I think that it’s managed to survive in some bizarre way. For many decades, it seemed to be circling Pluto, but it seems to have made its way a bit closer back towards Earth these days.
Do you think it needs to be reappraised?
It was strange being accused of destroying the British film industry.
The fact that I couldn’t work was quite scary at the time for me, because that’s all I was living for, really. But I probably would have been dead in Hollywood if it had been a big success, floating in some Jacuzzi. So I’m happy that I never got to do that and that I am still hungry to work, which I probably wouldn’t have been so much if that had been huge and I’d done a lot of big movies.
It’s very much a document of its time. Visually, I think it’s very powerful. Most of the people who were dancing in Soho at night were on set as extras in the day, so it has a whole kind of social history in each frame. I think it was a very ambitious thing for a bunch of young kids to try and do. We got a big spanking in the end; partly deserved, but not probably wholly deserved. And it was such a public thing. There were cartoons published and reviews written before anyone had seen it. It was very much a headline story, so to survive that and keep going was quite an achievement for me personally.
It’s strange to think that the British media played its own part in ensuring that there was a wobble in the British film industry.
Yeah, but they like wobbling things, as we’ve seen recently! In Europe, it went down much better. In the States they liked it. In fact, when I got to LA, I had this weird, squeaky voice on the phone saying, ‘Hey, it’s Michael here’. I was like, ‘Hello. Michael who?’ And he said, ‘Michael Jackson. Janet and I would like to invite you over to the family home. We dance to Absolute Beginners. We would like to perform it for you.’
They had their own print and they danced it for me beneath the cinema screen in their home, which was quite surreal. I didn’t film it, unfortunately. I did get to work with Janet Jackson after that, as a result, so that was pretty cool (on her video for 'When I Think Of You').
You had quite a split with the music in Absolute Beginners between contemporaries such as The Style Council and Sade, and members of the rock establishment, such as David Bowie and Ray Davies. Was this a conscious decision?
It was very much a film about the emergence of youth culture in Britain in the fifties, so I was trying to balance things between ’58 and ’85. I wanted to cast people from all the different eras. People like Lionel Blair and Mandy Rice-Davies etc. I wanted it to be contemporary as well, because it was like a post-punk look at it in some ways. It was a weird thing that jazz was back in fashion at that time. Sade was obviously very jazz-influenced, the jazz dancers there and there was a connection to jazz briefly in ’84, ’85, which felt like the time of Charlie Watts and people of the late ‘50s. It was social history as well as a Hollywood musical type of thing.
How did the songs work? Did you advise the artists as to what type of music you wanted?
I worked closely with Gil Evans, who was the guy who scored it and arranged all the songs. I wrote some of the lyrics and stuff. It was a very close collaboration. It was quite hard to persuade David Bowie to do ‘Volare’ (one of the songs in the film), but then he seemed to want it.
He surprised us all with that song (‘Absolute Beginners’). That came out of the blue. He said, I’ve written a song for you’, and it was ‘Absolute Beginners’. It blew me away, actually, when he played me the demo. That was amazing. The other song, ‘Motivation’, we worked on together.
Was there some controversy about having Bowie in the film (it was reported that Bowie made it a condition of his musical contribution that he had a role in the film)? Had you only wanted him to narrate?
I wanted him to play a part. I’d worked with him on videos and got quite close with him, so we talked about the project quite a lot. He had worked in an ad agency briefly after art school, so he really liked the idea of the part. That was a wonderful aspect of it.
And Ray (Davies), who was also a friend of mine. Although he did say he could drive. He was playing a taxi driving dad. And then, when we all arrived on set, a hundred crew, all those cameras, the taxi and everything, he said, ‘I can’t drive!’
Now, he can drive and I cast him as a cab driver for a video of ‘Waterloo Sunset’. Cathy Dennis did a version of the song and in the video she’s driving around London in a cab. In the end, you realise that it’s Ray driving it.
I have to ask you about Bowie after his sad passing earlier this year. You worked with him extensively in the eighties and have said that you became pretty close. Did you have much to do with him in later years?
Not really. I worked very closely with him for about 7 or 8 years and then I was living in Ealing and he was very much with his family in New York and I didn’t really see him very much, no, but I always retained a huge love for him. It’s all been said, but it’s all true.
Was he as elusive and enigmatic as a person as he often was as a performer?
No, and that was the great thing about him. He was like the guy next door. It was quite a shock for me when I realised he was that normal.
You’ve worked with the majority of the really big artists. Did he differ from what a lot of those are like?
He was very different, yeah. With the Stones you feel as though these guys are stars 24 hours a day. Whereas David Bowie seemed to transform himself when he went on stage or whatever. It was quite a powerful dichotomy between the guy you’d hang out with and the mysterious, otherworldly megastar. I think it was part of his power. I mean, it’s not fair on the Stones too; they’re really powerful in their own right, as human beings.
You mentioned Michael Jackson earlier. You’ve also done a lot of work with Neil Young. In the video you created for Young’s 1988 song ‘This Note’s For You’, you had Michael Jackson’s head spinning and going on fire. It was pretty critical of MTV, endorsement and sponsorship. Didn’t you get into some legal problems over that?
Well, it won the MTV’s Best Video of the Year award that year, and yet they’d banned it on MTV. It was the kind of irony that you look for all of your life, really.
But, Neil was fantastic. A really inspirational guy. I’m really glad that I got the chance to know him. He unleashes forces beyond his control onstage, but offstage he’s a pretty consistent guy. Very, very down to earth and honest. There’s no bullshit with him. It’s great.
Did you expect that video to be so controversial though?
I aimed for it to be, yeah. That was the whole point. It was about how sponsorship was destroying music.
Do you still have that gripe?
I think corporations are not the best people to run music events or music careers. I think that is changing and these guys that have managed to survive so long have made a point of saying, ‘we run our own careers. We’re not soulless product, like a baked bean can’.
You made the documentary Oil City Confidential about Dr Feelgood. Do you feel that their stature has grown over the years?
Yes, I do. I’m glad it has. They were always fantastic and had a huge influence over the whole punk movement. I would like to think that Oil City Confidential did help that process. It was certainly what I wanted it to do: give them back their place in the story.
Is that something that motivates you? Do you want to throw the spotlight on someone (artist or otherwise) that you feel might have slipped under the radar?
To an extent, I think that’s true. One of the great loves of my life is the Kinks, and I’m planning another film about them. I did one about Ray (Davies) and one about Dave (Davies) and I’m doing a drama about the two of them, called ‘You Really Got Me’.
They’ve buried the hatchet now, haven’t they?
Well, they bury it and then they keep digging it up… exhuming it!
How far down the road are you with this film about the Kinks?
Well, we’re hoping to shoot later this year or early next year, certainly. It’s been a long process, like we’ve been negotiating BREXIT.
You have a plan though, that’s the difference.
(laughs) I have a script!
What will the film focus on?
Their childhood, ascent to fame and their ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The banning and why they got thrown out of America is a big part of it.
You’ve predominately stuck with music as a subject for your filmmaking. Is music your true passion?
Yes, it really is. I’ve lived my life through it, really. But these are also films about the places where I come from, the history of those places and the people. It’s more the effect that the music has on anyone being alive that I’ve hopefully made my films about.
Oh, and I’m a really, really bad, failed saxophone player. I thought I’d be the white John Coltrane at one point, until I started playing the fucking thing!
Where do you feel Absolute Beginners resides in your canon?
I enjoy watching it now. I read some review of the Blu Ray release where they said that ‘every frame is like a work of art’, which doesn’t necessarily make the greatest movie of all time, but on one level that’s what it is, a weird art piece, in the end.
Absolute Beginners is available on Blu Ray from 25th July 2016.