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The Lens: Musical number of the week: A Quiet Life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 21, 2008 - Remember back in the early '80s when MTV emerged and the entertainment industry was convincing itself that the promotional films record companies had been producing for years had suddenly become part of a major aesthetic breakthrough, and that "Billie Jean" and "Hungry Like the Wolf" were the future of cinema as we know it?

Move aside, Spielberg and Lucas, Scorsese and Coppola, the next wave of great directors was going to be lead by the likes of Bob Giraldi, Zelda Barron and Russell Mulcahy.

Okay, so it didn't quite happen that way, though all of the above tried their hands at features without much success. And ironically, when a music video director actually managed to complete a major film that matched MTV kinetics with the stylistic sweep of 1950s Hollywood … nobody noticed.

Julian Temple's 1986 "Absolute Beginners," one of the most expensive films produced in Britain's post-"Chariots of Fire" enthusiasm, was considered a monumental disaster in its home country; in the U.S., it was barely released at all. (Here in St. Louis, it snuck in on a single local screen months after its New York premiere, with no press screenings or advertising.)

Based on Colin McInnes' novel about the social and cultural changes of the late 1950s, Temple's film is a complex, encyclopedic survey of almost four decades of pop culture, with '80s artists like Sade and the Style Council belting out 50s-style ballads and rock icons like David Bowie (who sings "Volare") and Ray Davies appearing alongside jazz legends like Slim Gaillard, set to a Gil Evans score. From its opening shot – Temple's first entry in the ever-popular "try to outdo the opening shot of 'Touch of Evil''' sweepstakes - to its powerful climax set against the race riots of 1958, is nothing if not ambitious, fueled by the director's efforts to recreate all of the resources of a Hollywood studio circa 1955, but tempered by a post-punk sensibility.

My favorite scene is with Ray Davies in a three-story building with cut-away walls (a tribute to Jerry Lewis' "The Ladies Man" by way of Godard's "Tout va Bien"), looking unsuccessfully for a bit of peace and quiet on a typical afternoon. (And for those who follow political scandals of yore, that's Mandy Rice-Davies as Ray's unfaithful wife.)

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