Imagine working inside the marketing and publicity departments at Orion Pictures on this date in 1986. The two movies the company launched simultaneously in U.S. theaters, each daringly different efforts bankrolled by British producing partners, required huge amounts of tender loving care and positive critical attention in order to lure filmgoers to their challenging subject matter and brazenly assaultive styles. Neither made much of a mark at the box office, but both proved to be dazzling showcases of their assembled talents and powerful alternatives to mass-market fare that still impress 31 years later. For example, having just observed the previous season’s musical love affair that the multiple award-winning contemporary musical La La Land spun around odds-defying young Los Angeles dreamers, there’s director Julien Temple’s eternally spinning, rock-pulsating fantasia about 1958 Londoners, Absolute Beginners, adapted from a benchmark novel by Colin MacInnes. It bursts at the seams with scintillating, neon-burnished nightlife, cheeky commentary on clashes within the cultural melting-pot, devastating observations of racial tensions, and a wealth of jazz, pop and rock melodies that herald upheavals in the social order. The vibrant soundtrack, supervised by jazz legend Gil Evans, boasted contributions by on-screen performers Sade, Ray Davies and Slim Gaillard, as well as Style Council and Eighth Wonder. And, like a wickedly playful deity from on high, there’s David Bowie, who galvanizes the proceedings with the throbbing heartbeat of a title song as well as his portrayal of a wily marketing maven offering the keys of the kingdom to the film’s young protagonist Colin (Eddie O’Connell) in the electrifying song-and-dance spectacle That’s Motivation.
Stacked alongside the color, movement and musical variety of Absolute Beginners, the other Orion opener was quite another kind of sell to audiences: a tense, true story-inspired journey into the darkness of heartland America. Directed by James Foley and written by Nicholas Kazan, At Close Range was a disturbing examination of twisted family ties made somehow arrestingly absorbing by career-peak performances by Christopher Walken as a chillingly charismatic criminal and Sean and Chris Penn as his devoted, uncomprehending sons, who are drawn into an increasingly dangerous web of outlaw activity that culminates in murder and betrayal. Daring audiences to become swept up in its harrowing events, the film divided critics. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times was both analytical and impressed in his assessment: “Here is a spare, violent, unforgiving story of a boy's need for a father who does not love him and who would, if necessary, murder his son. It is also a story with passages of love and adventure and cheerfulness, as a teenager grows up in the hills of rural Pennsylvania. The way that the two sides of the story grow together creates a tragedy that reminds me of myth, of the ancient stories of children betrayed by their parents.” He concluded that the effort was worthwhile: “Because this film is violent and cruel and very sad, why would you want to see it? For a couple of reasons, perhaps. One might be to watch two great actors, [Sean] Penn and Walken, at the top of their forms in roles that give them a lot to work with. Another might be to witness some of the dynamics of a criminal society, some of the forces that push criminals further than they intend to go. They are the same dynamics you could see in the great crime film In Cold Blood (1967), the dynamics where seemingly ordinary people whose moral sense is missing drift into actions so bad that perhaps even they are appalled.” These two high-profile projects from the same distribution company, representative of the adventurous filmmaking spirit of decades past, opened on the same day, not a likely occurrence in today’s cinematic marketplace. Today they share the same video label, and the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays of Absolute Beginners and At Close Range show that where quality and storytelling innovation converge, audiences will inevitably catch up and catch on.