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ROTTERDAM 2019 Voices

Review: Beats

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- Brian Welsh’s second film is a male-bonding comedy that takes in a Scottish rave in the summer of 1994

Review: Beats

World-premiering in the Voices section of International Film Festival Rotterdam (23 January-3 February), Brian Welsh’s Beats [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, an adaptation of Kieran Hurley’s 2012 stage play of the same name, is a deliciously profound socio-political commentary on Tony Blair’s New Labour, dressed up as an adolescent-male coming-of-age story. While the comedy is at times banal, the film benefits aurally, visually and politically by being set in Scotland in 1994, as the characters try to recapture the Summer of Love, when ecstasy-fuelled raves became a source of ire for the establishment.

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The movie was filmed in black and white, an aesthetic decision that, combined with the buffoonish 15-year-old protagonists Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald), harks back to classic mid-1990s films, such as Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994) and Shane Meadow’s TwentyFourSeven (1997). This monotone colour scheme invites us to see the action on screen as a memory, yet the emphasis on the two boys’ friendship as the glue of the film means that one does not have to have sampled rave culture in order to fall for its charms, and nor does Welsh fall into the trap of relying on nostalgia for the film to successfully resonate with a contemporary audience.

Nonetheless, the political aspect of the movie only works by taking a present-day perspective on the era, as the social commentary requires specific knowledge of how the New Labour movement would fare in power and of how Tony Blair would go from being seen as a liberal light to the man who led British troops into Iraq. The film argues – simply by showing a Blair speech on television – that if one had listened to what Blair was saying as opposition leader, rather than buy into what he was perceived to represent, one would have seen a man who chose the wrong battles and was actually conservative at heart. His decision to support the Conservative Party’s Criminal Justice Bill represented the establishment making pariahs of kids whose only crime was dancing in fields and popping pills – the first sign of what was to be Blair’s misplaced hard line on justice.

That Welsh is able to give the film such a political angle without ever losing the adolescent tone is impressive, especially as the plot is paper-thin and at times it’s a struggle to feel an emotional connection with such cartoonish characters. It takes a long time for the movie to get into its groove, as the side stories of Johnno and Spanner’s difficult home situations are overplayed with some baroque acting. There is an element of Justin Kerrigan’s club drama Human Traffic (1999) in the way it swings dramatically from the naff to the profound from one scene to the next. 

Bizarrely, the action doesn’t feel authentic until we get to the rave sequences, which benefit from some extraordinary visuals designed by Weirdcore (Nicky Smith), who is best known for his work with Aphex Twin and MIA. The use of colour in this drug-induced state will please fans of Rumble Fish. Mostly it’s the sheer fun and enjoyment of the club scenes that endear, as they are in stark contrast to the mundane nocturnal scenes seen in Mia Hansen Løve’s Eden [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Charles Gillibert
interview: Mia Hansen-Løve
film profile
]
, set in the Paris techno scene of the 1990s. The Beats soundtrack also deserves praise for avoiding the usual club anthems.

Beats is a British production staged by Camilla Bray, of Rosetta Productions, and will be distributed in the UK by Altitude. Its international sales are handled by Wild Bunch in conjunction with Altitude.

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