When the Criminal Justice Bill came into action in 1994, the British government outlawed publicly organised raves, a massive blow to the counterculture formed around a shared love of electronic music. Brian Welsh’s film Beats is set shortly after this, based around two friends Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn MacDonald) who are desperate to get to a rave before they’re separated. It’s a highly sentimental story about the connectivity of music and innocence of youthful friendships shot in monochrome, and with a knowing debt to Shane Meadows’ work.
Not that this works against Beats, it takes the best elements of Meadows’ dramas and uses them to boost thematic elements through presentation. Like This Is England we are given an uncompromising picture of a dark time in British history, only Welsh decides to find the joy negating it rather than build on the despair in his leads. A motif of speeches from Tony Blair on the power of New Labour counterpointed by footage of riots widespread across the country gives the idea of a country eating itself, and the rave scene as a gleeful escapism from an uncertain future. Spanner and Johnno idolise the DJs playing this music on pirate radio, and the older teens who go to the events. So, when Spanner discovers the frequency for D-Man’s (Ross Mann) pirate station, they make sure not to miss the opportunity again.
Their decision is driven by very separate but equally unhappy home lives that cross a large class divide. Johnno lives with his mother and step father who are keen to separate Spanner from him and get their son on “the straight and narrow”. Their discontent for Spanner coming from assumptions regarding the area he’s from, and that his brother is a notorious drug dealer who abuses him. The film never makes this an area of discontent between the two, presenting their friendship as a pure entity in tumultuous circumstances. Presented brilliantly by both respective leads, you see how much they value each other despite their opposite personalities. It’s a friendship created by an uncertainty in the world, Spanner doesn’t attend school and feels like an outcast, and hides this behind his bravado. Meanwhile, Johnno is more introverted, and looks to Spanner to lead the way as a big brother figure who can take him out of his mundane existence.
There’s a real energy to the filmmaking here, paired interestingly with a nostalgic style of presentation. As the two travel around Glasgow Detroit House and Garage music score their journey, Welsh concerned with immersing you into the culture they adore. Beats was shot by Benjamin Kracun, who uses formats like Super 8 and 16mm film to show an affinity to youth in a large cityscape. There hasn’t been a film to capture Scotland this well since Trainspotting. Yet, Beats is not disturbing or cautionary like Danny Boyle’s cult classic. Instead it’s a celebration of youth, capturing fleeting moments in a knowing fashion.
Visually it’s at its most impressive upon arrival at the rave where ecstasy induces a shift from monochrome to psychotropic colours bursting over footage of factories being demolished, a picture of societal changes that led to the existence of a resisting subculture like the rave scene. It’s unfortunately the weakest moment of the film though, the idea is novel but there are several plot points resolved poorly as much of the film’s final third is taken up by it.
Beats is a triumphant film, a celebration of formative friendships presented in an ingenious way. The energy of rave culture is captured by Brian Welsh with a sense of authenticity, leading the audience to connect with the leads even if they’ve never engaged in the culture. As the UK falls into political turmoil, they are negotiating an existential terror. Their journey to escape the bleakness of realty is at once uplifting, engaging, and creative. Beats has a lot of heart and is already destined to become a cult classic upon general release.