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There are two films from 2019 called Beats, both heavily into music. This is the other one – British (Scottish, more specifically) and set in the 1990s world of rave culture. I haven’t seen the American Beats, hip-hop to the core, so can’t say which one comes out on top but Brian Welsh’s Beats sets a high bar.

A bit of background. In the 1980 and 90s, ideologically committed to staying out of the economic sphere, the UK government turned its attention instead to policing the population’s behaviour, with new controls on what people could watch (the Video Nasties panic), who they could have sex with (the notorious Section 28 of the innocuous sounding Local Government Act of 1988) and what sort of music they could listen to (music “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” getting special attention). This made illegal raves even more illegal than they already were, and so made them a whole lot sexier.

Against this backdrop director Welsh and co-writer Kieran Hurley tell the coming-of age story of wimpy techno-loving Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and lairy pal Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) following the yellow brick road towards a massive illegal rave, Revolt, the ultimate destination of this journey.

Drama-generating obstacles include the the fact that Johnno’s mum’s new man (Brian Ferguson) is a policeman, that she (Laura Fraser) wants to move the family away from this sump of limited opportunity and bad influences, not least Johnno’s mate Spanner, who has the wrong accent, the wrong attitude and the wrong aspirations. And there’s Spanner’s drug-dealing brother, Fido (Neil Leiper), an appropriate name for a mad-dog psycho nutjob with a nasty lieutenant, Les (Kevin Mains), both of whom are going to figure prominently in what will eventually become a white hats v black hats western-style showdown finale at the rave on skull-shredding drugs.

Johnno, Spanner and the gang
Obligatory Reservoir Dogs-style group shot

In keeping with the DIY rave vibe, Welsh and DP Benjamin Kracun shoot it all in grungey black and white, with addled cutaways to a very stoked D-Man (Ross Mann), the local DJ inciting his listeners to break the law and stick it to the man – “It’s not just a rave, it’s a revolt” – that’s when they’re not delivering astonishingly evocative visuals when Spanner and Johnno take an E. Large washes of ambient music, bright strobing lights, the sound and vision not quite connected, the momentary shift out of black and white and into colour. For anyone who’s ever spent a night off their cake on MDMA or the like, this effectively conjures that loved-up feeling.

“Last night oot… dream team… me and you,” begs Spanner at one point (subtitles handy if the West Lothian accent isn’t one you’re familiar with), and it’s the slight mystery of Spanner’s double-act relationship with Johnno that gives this film a lot of its power. Meanwhile, on the even badder side of town, there’s something similarly bromantic, if a bit less overtly stated, going on between Fido and Les.

Of course the film is entirely on the side of the ravers, and immerses us in the nitty gritty of their often miserable lives. It drops in enough political background to situate us in the times, but not so much that it overwhelms the film. The language is street – not one for haters of the C word – and it is spat out of the mouths of a uniformly fantastic cast, especially Ortega and Macdonald. Set in 1994, in the run-up to the Cool Britannia era, with Tony Blair warming up in the wings, it could be bracketed Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting in terms of verve and vibe. By all means, bracket away.

Beats – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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