David Bowie's Underrated, "Absolute" Soundtrack Hit

The "Absolute Beginners" single sleeve
Photo Credit
Parlophone Records

David Bowie spent the '80s becoming a full-fledged global pop star - and it wasn't long before he started to try his hand at acting, as well. While he'd starred in unusual fare such as The Man Who Fell to Earth and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, 1986 would see him make a play for cinema with two big roles - Jareth the Goblin King in the cult classic Labyrinth and a supporting turn in the British flick Absolute Beginners - and for the first time, both projects featured major musical contributions from him as well.

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An oddball romance set against the real-life race riots of Notting Hill in 1958, Absolute Beginners featured Bowie in a small but memorable role as Vendice Partners, a deceptively-charming ad exec who entices the young photographer Colin (Eddie O'Connell) with promises of fortune. Bowie was approached by director Julien Temple (who'd made the Sex Pistols documentary The Great Rock and Roll Swindle as well as Bowie's Tonight-era short film Jazzin' for Blue Jean) to merely contribute music, but the singer was intrigued by Partners enough to want to play him.

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Bowie drew inspiration from his brief time working in advertising to play the part. "There was fluctuating between an English and American accent that I thought would be a good way to portray [the role]," he explained in an interview. "Sort of a naive idea about the American way of life. It was just happening, you know, in England in the 50's and I think that was sort of very influenced by the American way of doing things...I don't relate to him particularly, but I enjoyed playing him, because he's such a bastard."

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Bowie recorded three songs for Absolute Beginners: a cover of the Italian standard "Volare," the peppy "That's Motivation" (sung in the film) and the film's yearning title track, produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley and featuring a crack group of session players, including keyboards and piano from Elvis Costello collaborator Steve Nieve as well as Rick Wakeman, who played on Bowie's breakthrough "Space Oddity." (Other heavy hitters on the soundtrack included The Style Council, Sade and Ray Davies, frontman for The Kinks; the latter two also appear in the film.)

While the film was a box office bomb, "Absolute Beginners" became a favorite of Bowie's '80s, especially in England. The track peaked at No. 2 on the U.K. charts, reached the Top 10 of Billboard's rock charts in America and remained a concert staple for the rest of the decade.

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