As someone who wasn’t born until the middle of the 1990s – for which I can only apologise – and finds even the average nightclub considerably louder than any music ever needs to be, I confess that rave culture is something of an alien concept to me. With that in mind, Brian Welsh’s Beats served as a very pleasant surprise. In a true manifestation of the film’s simple, raw power, it evoked warm sentiment in me for a cultural moment I never experienced.
That cultural moment is the introduction by the British government of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 1994 – the year of my birth, for which I can again only apologise. One of the most widely discussed elements of the legislation outlawed gatherings featuring music that was “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and his unruly, troubled friend Spanner (Lorn Macdonald), idolise the culture of raves and, despite their age, are seduced by the promise of a rebellious gathering being organised by underground DJ D-Man (Ross Mann) – referred to with brilliant bluntness as “the c**t off the radio”.
As part of a ragtag, disaffected group, they begin their drink and drug-fuelled journey during an event billed as the ravers’ last stand: “two arms up in the air and two fingers to the authorities”, as D-Man puts it. With Johnno on the cusp of a move to the suburbs, it also feels like the last stand for his life and his bond with his best mate.
Welsh, known for Black Mirror episode ‘The Entire History of You’ and snooker-themed BBC drama The Rack Pack, expertly evokes the feel of the period with a working class Scotland not dissimilar to the iconic Edinburgh of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Boyle’s film is an obvious comparison point, but a valid one given the shared themes of youth turning to hedonism in an attempt to do what Jack Black would almost certainly call “sticking it to the man”. This is a world in which “the only good system is a sound system” and authority is unambiguously villainous, which is a problem given the fact that Johnno’s stepdad is one of the police officers charged with enforcing the new law.
The rave, when it arrives, is a kaleidoscope of sweaty euphoria. Beads of perspiration fly from characters’ hair, while cinematographer Benjamin Kracun’s monochrome visual style gives way to flashes of psychedelic colour. In this world, black and white feels like the truth, while these glimpses of colour feel like artificial constructions, created by the influence of hallucinogens and endless cans of cheap cider. Like Olivier Assayas’ French coming of age tale Cold Water, which incidentally was released in 1994 as the rave law arrived in Britain, the party forms the centrepiece for a story that takes in disparate elements of the youth experience.
At the core of that is the potent friendship between Johnno and Spanner. The former’s family is dead set against Spanner, who has a tearaway reputation and a low-grade gang boss brother (Neil Leiper), who we see spitting in his cereal and threatening to burn his sibling’s face on the stove. Johnno, played with beautiful, rabbit-in-headlights sensitivity by feature debutant Cristian Ortega, is contrastingly constantly drawn to Spanner, in what transpires as an insightful depiction of the intensity of teenage friendship, with more than a little frisson of potential romance at play as well.
The performances are delightfully raw, with Ortega finding his counterpoint in Macdonald’s take on Spanner – a desperate, frightened young man driven entirely by bravado and the desire to escape his brother’s shadow. Macdonald’s work is as heart-breaking as it is comedic, with his aptitude for humour never lessening the impact of his character’s inner tragedy. Ross Mann, too, is memorable as D-Man, who is driven into a borderline psychotic state by the cocktail of drugs he has taken and his devotion to defending the the rave culture he loves so much.
If there’s a failing to Beats, it’s that some of the more contrived elements of the plot don’t quite sit right. Brian Ferguson struggles with the under-written role of the cop stepdad, which robs a climactic moment of some of the power it needed. Also, the threat presented by Spanner’s brother and his gang often feels like a necessity of plot, more than an organic cog in what is otherwise a very naturalistic story. But when it focuses on its protagonists, their relationship and the intense brevity of youthful rebellion, it’s a film that flies with exquisite ecstasy, as the volume is cranked well beyond 11.
Dir: Brian Welsh
Scr: Brian Welsh, Kieran Hurley
Cast: Cristian Ortega, Lorn Macdonald, Ross Mann, Gemma McElhinney, Amy Manson, Brian Ferguson, Rachel Jackson, Laura Fraser, Neil Leiper
Prd: Camilla Bray
DOP: Benjamin Kracun
Music: Stephen Hindman, Penelope Trappes
Run time: 101 mins
Beats is in UK cinemas from 17th May.