Director: Brian Welsh
Writers: Kieran Hurley and Brian Welsh
Starring: Christian Ortega, Lorn Macdonald, Laura Fraser
Scotland 1994, and two teenage best friends Johnno (Ortega) and Spanner (Macdonald), who have no control over their lives, risk everything to attend an illegal rave, hoping for the best night of their boring lives.
Just like the medium of film, music is of course also very subjective and potentially divisive, and I expect early 90s rave music is a genre that is particularly marmite-esque. When a film is about a particular movement or genre of music it always runs the risk of alienating those that did not experience that particular time that the film is set or don’t like that genre of music, and so already puts itself at a potential disadvantage and has to work that bit harder to achieve a more universal appeal without diluting too much of its obvious passion for its subject matter. What also may not help is there has been another film called Beats released this year, which unsurprisingly is also about a different genre of music (so I believe).
Well, thankfully in my opinion this particular Beats manages to predominantly maintain both an obvious passion for both mid 90s rave music and captures perfectly a particular music movement and moment in time, while also managing to be an emotionally engaging film with genuine heart that encapsulates some more universal themes within its narrative.
At the centre of the narrative amongst all the raving, drug-taking and swearing is a very simple and bittersweet coming-of-age tale about friendship. Johnno and Spanner are from very different sides of the tracks in terms of their family and upbringing, but they not only have in common their love of rave music and the fact that it allows them to escape the mundanity and misery of their respective lives (which is one of the universal things that our particular favourite genre of music can do for all of us), but also the loyal and caring friendship that they share despite their obvious differences, as well as the expected banter.
As Johnno and Spanner, Christian Ortega and Lorn Macdonald deliver great, authentic and raw performances that perfectly depict their differing personalities, and they also share a great onscreen chemistry that makes their friendship truly believable and engaging. We cannot help but truly care about these two and want their friendship to prevail despite the many setbacks and obstacles that seem to fall in front of them.
What also makes Beats such an engaging film is that is very much about a particular moment in recent British history. It is set during the time that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was introduced, of which Section 63 effectively outlawed open-air gatherings which were “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. This does produce a kind of ‘end of an era’ feel to the film which certainly adds to the melancholic, bittersweet tone. Also enhancing this tone (as well as providing substance) is the fact that Beats is very effectively shot in monochrome and also uses various intentional external shots or news clips and adverts from the time showing the state of social decline and divide at the time, without it ever being overwhelming or patronising. Beats manages to successfully capture the mood of a particular generation at a particular moment in time, and what this particular genre of music meant to them.
As the narrative develops and the two protagonists finally get to the film’s set piece the film’s obvious passion for the music does kick in and is often met with appropriate visuals (including some colour), but the emotional journeys that Johnno and Spanner both take keeps the narrative firmly together. Beats never tries to alienate those that do not like the music but tries to be accessible in simply explaining what this music meant to these people involved at the time.
As the inevitable happens at the rave the narrative does admittedly rely on contrivance for a few subplots just to add dramatic effect, and there is no escaping that the contrivances with these are little too glaring. While some of the loose ends of the plot that were used to initially drive parts of the narrative along and provide some emotional intensity (such as Spanner’s relationship with his brother) are tied up a little too easily or not at all, which feels like a cop out and perhaps does not provide quite the emotional satisfaction that they could have done if seen through differently. However, though it may not leave all viewers ‘throwing their hands up in the air like they just don’t care’, there is no denying that the audience cannot help but feel part of the narrative journey that Johnno and Spanner embark on, making Beats perhaps one of the more pleasantly surprising films of 2019.
Despite its subject matter being a genre of music that many will dislike, those willing to give Beats a go will be amply rewarded by a film which manages to be accessible, successfully blend style and substance, and be emotionally engaging.