That’s Motivation

That’s Motivation.
That’s Motivation (film sequence).

In the mid-Eighties Bowie transferred his allegiance from David Mallet, who had directed most of his iconic videos, to Julien Temple. Temple was slightly younger, flashier, more ambitious, and Bowie enjoyed his energy, the sense of being part of a movement that would invigorate British film, a New New Wave (it didn’t quite turn out that way). Bowie and Temple would hang out at Bar Italia, indulging each other’s nostalgia—Bowie’s, for Swinging London; Temple’s, for the punk summer of 1976.

So when Temple decided to bring Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners to the screen, Bowie wanted part of it. MacInnes’ 1959 novel was a herald of the Sixties: in part a British response to Catcher in the Rye, it was one of the first celebrations of the teenager. MacInnes was an odd prophet of the youth explosion, as he was 45 when he wrote the novel (part of a loose trilogy that also included City of Spades and Mr. Love and Justice). But he had been a determined outsider all of his life, a bisexual whose allegiances lay with society’s misfits and outcasts. The Absolute Beginners trilogy is an ode to immigrant London, with MacInnes regarding African and West Indian immigrants as Britain’s saviors, the New Britons with style and soul. At the end of Absolute Beginners, the narrator, ready to emigrate in disillusionment, is stopped in his tracks by seeing a group of African immigrants disembarking an airplane. (“I shouted out above the engines, ‘Welcome to London! Greetings from England! Meet your first teenager!”)

But MacInnes had fallen into the same hole as Norman Mailer, prizing Africans and West Indians for their “realness,” and abstracting them in his own way as much as any bigot. For example, here’s his “A Short Guide for Jumbles (to the Life of their Coloured Brethren in England)” (1956): Do Africans not like us then? Not very much, because our outstanding characteristics of reliability and calm don’t touch them, and we lack the spontaneity and sociability they prize.” By contrast, white Britain was “The ‘Express’ Families” of MacInnes’ 1960 essay: “sexless sparrows in their suburban love-nest…outside their world of consecrated mediocrity, nothing exists whatsoever.”

Temple’s adaptation could have made much of this, viewing this condescending utopian dream of an alliance between blacks and British hipsters from the perspective of a post-Brixton London, but instead he downplayed that aspect of the novel, even as a satire. While climaxing the film with a West Side Story version of the Notting Hill race riots of 1958 (complete with a new Jerry Dammers track), Temple’s interests lay more in showing the scaffolding of Modernity Britain being assembled.

Bowie, asked by Temple to do a theme song for his adaptation, offered to play a role as well, and wound up as Vendice Partners, a Satanic ad man with a wavering American accent.* Bowie’s Partners is the distillation of his time: Vespa scooters, E-type Jaguars, streamlined Italian suits (as Bowie’s biographer Christopher Sandford noted, it was “poignantly, the world of Terry Burns,” Bowie’s elder half-brother, who had killed himself in early 1985). Partners was also Bowie’s long-stewed revenge on the ad industry, in which he had dabbled as a teenager to support himself, and a winking acknowledgment that youth culture had been compromised, sold out and repackaged while it was still in the cradle.

What was intended as a small-scale genre picture, a witty tribute to the dawn of the Sixties by its veterans (Ray Davies also has a minor role, singing his best song of the Eighties), instead became the center of colossal expectations. Absolute Beginners would save the ailing British film industry, it would launch a new generation of stars (Temple’s lead actress was the 17-year-old Patsy Kensit, who had recently been quoted saying “all I want is to be more famous than anything or anyone’”), it would revive the musical, it would make millions, it would be revolutionary. Naturally, the UK press hated it before primary shooting was completed. Partly intended as a critique of Thatcherism, the film’s aspirational feel, its rapidly-ballooning budget, its overinflated expectations and its flash barely masking a shoddiness, marked it instead as a pure product of its time.

The film also seemed cursed. London’s rain-plagued summer of 1985 meant that location shots had to keep being postponed. A set caught fire. Most of the cast took ill, some with pneumonia. When Absolute Beginners finally premiered in March 1986, it had been debated, belittled and gossiped about for so long that its actual debut seemed like old news. The film was reviewed modestly, sold modestly, and faded away. As Nicholas Pegg wrote, “it’s still regarded today as some sort of grand folly, often by people who’ve never seen it.

“That’s Motivation” was the first song that Bowie wrote for the film, and it would serve as his character’s major set piece. It’s a seduction song, with Partners corrupting the teenage Colin with a philosophy summed up in Alan Sinfield’s comment on MacInnes’ novel: “If you listen to jazz, dress snappily and stay cool, then the rest of it needn’t bother you.”

That said, “Motivation” is a pretty weak song, its horn-driven beat a melange of Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave” and “The Name Game,” while Bowie’s lyric throws in Sixties references (Far From the Madding Crowd) and recently-used creaky imagery (the bloody skies of “This Is Not America” are back). The need to extend the song to fit in assorted set pieces (the dance on the giant typewriter (inspired by Ready, Willing and Able), the Great Dictator-referencing globe scene, the tap-dancing on TV, the Seven Deadly Sins count-down**) means that “Motivation” feels like it goes on forever, especially when it’s stuck in one of its nearly amelodic bridges. Still, the studio band assembled for the soundtrack are sharp (including Elvis Costello’s pianist Steve Nieve) and the song does what it needs to do—it’s a secondary color for an overly ambitious film sequence.

Recorded June 1985, Abbey Road Studios, London. Released April 1986 on the Absolute Beginners OST (Virgin V 2386/EMI America SV 171-82).

* A deliberate move by Bowie, and one reflecting MacInnes’ essay “Young English, Half English” (1957), about Tommy Steele: “[when Steele] speaks to his admirers between the songs, his voice takes on the flat, wise, dryly comical tones of purest Bermondsey. When he sings, the words (where intelligible) are intoned in the shrill international American-style drone.”

**A pedantic footnote. Bowie’s recounting of the Seven Deadly Sins mistakenly uses jealousy instead of envy, but there’s a subtle difference between the two.

Top: “The Only Hell My Momma Ever Raised,” “KittyKat Theatre,” NYC, July 1985.

20 Responses to That’s Motivation

  1. willem says:

    I saw the movie upon its release and 14 year old me couldn’t make much of it (so I’m glad to see it described as being shoddy). The only scene I can recall is the one soundtracked by “That’s Motivation” – probably because of the tapdancing (that clip from Ready Willing and Able is fantastic!), although relistening (first time since ’86) to it now I recognize a couple of Bowie’s mannered vox (“you KNOW you got something/you know you got sty-yel”). It clearly left an impression, though the song itself is indeed not much.

    On another note, I’ve been wondering since I saw Drive where I recognized the typeface of its opening credits from – now I know!

  2. Maj says:

    Oh well. I finally watched the film last summer…and though it had its high points…ultimately it ended up being a below average experience for me. Unlike Just A Gigolo which gets worse rep than it deserves I think Beginners do deserve being dismissed as overblown…whatever it was.
    This “song” is only listenable in the context of the film, with the visuals. Though I wouldn’t say it was Bowie’s best look. :) But it gets boring and too-long even within the film.
    I wonder…was the theme from the title song written first as part of That’s Motivation (since Motivation was written first) – or was part of it just used here to add flavour?
    Oh, Absolute Beginners, the song, is definitely better than the whole film. Much better. It’s probably one of the most (only?) traditionally romantic songs Bowie ever wrote which made me expect something a bit different from the film. That’s Motivation probably fits the mood of the film better, at least that’s what I remember sensing when I was watching it.

  3. diamond dog says:

    Not seen the movie since it opened but must say its not as bad as reviewers made out. I watched it 3 times at the theatre ( being bowie mad) it was overly hyped then trashed by the same press so did not stand a chance. I thought the movie had some great set pieces but found it too studio bound. I remember it had a great nasty blade wielding turn by Bruce Payne , Bowie was hardly in it which was a let down and the much hyped tap dancing scene pedestrian and hardly a spectacle but, entertaining. Kensit was good to look at the lead guy ? Ok it was just like a long promo vid. At the time jazz was on the up with stars like Paul Weller adding to the soundtrack and Sade with their brit cool. That’s Motivation is purely for the scene its in and is pretty dull outside the movie. Worth a listen but a weak addition to his cataloguew as is Volare.

  4. diamond dog says:

    Just to add as well that over the years its not been an easy movie find to watch at home …if ya can find it watch it its not as bad as its made out.

  5. algeriatouchshriek says:

    The best bit of that song is when he wails ‘… and jealousy’ and it pans quickly and briefly from speaker to speaker. Love that bit.

  6. LondonLee says:

    I saw it when it came out too and should probably see it again because I remember it being pretty bad, lots of pop videos glues together with some bad acting. The only really good bit being the race riot dance with Jerry Dammers’ score. It did look great though (heavily influenced by Coppola’s “One From The Heart’). Shame, because the book is terrific.

    It did give us Bowie’s best post-Scary Monsters song of the 80s though, but it isn’t this one.

  7. aslowrip says:

    the film does ‘look’ great – all those intense colours. song’s ok.

    not related at all, but has everyone seen this: http://www.anydaynowbook.com/

    probably will buy this – great shots.

  8. bcr says:

    i’m sorry but…that’s BRILLIANT.

  9. Frankie says:

    This is all very well-researched and entertainingly informative and enjoyable to read despite the dud its about. I’ve never heard this song before nor that tune from Just a Gigolo Sadly this is a lost period for me. I lost touch with Bowie during his entire 80s foray into soundtracks. I did dig some of his movie appearances, the best of which was Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and that fabulous soundtrack by co-star Ryuichi Sakamoto. His aging vampire character in The Hunger was actually pretty good but not so much Into the Night where he plays a bad guy with a knife attacking Jeff Goldblum. However much I liked Labyrinth as a concept and the Muppets as an ideal, there’s only so many times you can watch-that-man’s jiggling testicles in that costume whilst listening to the unlikely gospel choir on Underground simultaneously… I particularly liked This is Not America, with marimba included, it was far better than most of Tonight, but I never did buy the record or see the movie nor much of Absolute Beginners either, except accidentally a scene on late night TV where Bowie looks like a grotesque Frank Sinatra on a gigantic typewriter or something… . I wasn’t inclined to buy soundtrack albums with the exception of Paris, Texas featuring Cat People’s Nastassja Kinski. And so with no bonafide album of songs until the lackluster Never Let Me Down, it wasn’t till the Ryko reissues and Tin Machine that Mr. B began speaking to my moonage daydreams again.

    • Gnomemansland says:

      I think you speak for many of us Frankie. This period is so depressing you can begin to wonder about whether Bowie is any good at all..then you hear a snatch of something like Golden Years on the radio and almost all is forgiven.

  10. Jeremy says:

    Probably unfair to judge this song too harshly as it was obviously made to order. Probably one of one of the least listened to track for me – I’ve no desire at all!

    During this period you just wanted Bowie to make another LP to make up for Tonight, not soundtrack dabbling, however the next track that shall be examined nearly made up for it! ( I assume that it’s next…)

  11. David L says:

    Happy Birthday, David Bowie

  12. Brendan O'Lear says:

    A close relative and a few friends had minor parts in this film. I would often ask them about what Bowie was like. I remember two answers: he was very small and that he was hardly ever on the set but when he was around he was very funny.

    Not much to say about the song itself, it’s just one of those things that make musicals so annoying.

  13. Jeremy says:

    Maybe now Bowie has reached the traditional age for retirement (in certain countries anyway) he can come out of retirement!

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