Sunday, 12 May 2019

Review: Beats

Cert: 18 / 101 mins / Dir. Brian Welsh / Trailer

Well this was the second film in a week (in three days, in fact*1) based around a pair of teenagers desperately trying to make it to a legendary party. This time however, we swap pools for pills and the West Coast for West Lothian, in Brian Welsh's Beats.

Adapted from Keiran Hurley's stage play of the same name, we follow Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) and Johnno (Cristian Ortega) through the urban sprawl of Glasgow in 1994, a pivotal time for the UK rave scene. The infamous Criminal Justice Bill was due to be passed (and indeed it later was) effectively outlawing unlicensed musical gatherings, aimed in no small part at dance music. In a bid to escape or at very least ignore their more mundane problems, Spanner and Johnno learn of a last-ditch rave, its location a closely guarded secret to throw off the authorities and other undesirables. But with Spanner's older brother being a violent drug dealer and Johnno's stepfather a police officer, can either be trusted with the location..?


Presented for the very most part in a stark, high-contrast monochrome complete with vintage grain and VHS scan-lines, the tense interactions between characters and high ratio of interior scenes lend Beats an oppressive air from the beginning. Much like the two protagonists, a viewer wants nothing more than to escape into a soundscape of colour and comparative freedom. The third act's psychedelic rave sequence is a release for all*2, tellingly foreshadowed by the single red LED on Johnno's radio an hour earlier.

The first forty minutes perhaps lean a little to heavily on archive news footage fo the time to make their socio-political points (not least the enigmatic 'D-Man' spells it all out in the script anyway), but the performances here are mostly outstanding - especially in their portrayal of the adrenaline, joy, fear and panic of the cutting-edge scene.


Rather than drop us straight into the chaos the film has a slow build, in both its drama and its soundtrack. The sense of rebellion simmers gradually, feeling in places like what Take The High Road's idea of what The Scottish Film must be like*3, having not seen it but only reading a terse article in The Sunday Post.

Welsh's film still feels a little 'stagey' and that's by no means a bad thing, but I suspect the closing caption-cards telling us what happened next for each character would work better after watching a live presentation. Because despite the heavy-handed realism in the cinematic adaptation, at no point does this feel like watching real, actual people - only broad generalisations of half remembered acquaintances, long lost.


I liked Beats. I was ready to like it more but Brian Welsh didn't want that to happen. It's an odd film and I love that it exists, purely because I know it'll mean a lot more to audience members more within its musical demographic.

People in attendance: around twenty.
Walkouts: four*4.

That's a level of niche that it's hard not to fall in love with.

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
The arch hedonism of Booksmart, the unapologetic grit of Mid90s.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If you get the opportunity (this being strictly arthouse-cinema fodder), yes.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Afraid I couldn't say.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Discuss at great length, but not disagree.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Cristian Ortega and Laura Fraser are in this, both of whom were in ITV's Retribution alongside Adrian 'Captain Peavey' Edmonson, Kate 'Unnamed First Order monitor' Dickie.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 And I'm loving the indie-vibe of the more recent Cineworld Unlimited exclusive-screenings, even if I've been less keen on the movies themselves. Cardholders to a cinema subscription service are more likely to be fans of diverse film, and the approach of showing a wider range to them makes far more sense than just airing the blockbusters everyone will be seeing anyway but a week early. What's more, I pointed this out in a Cineworld questionnaire back in January of this year and now here we are. So I think you can basically thank me for the recent run of more interesting pieces at your local multiplex. There. I said it. [ BACK ]

*2 With the best will in the world though, dance/rave music is dull as absolute fuck. I was waiting to be emotionally lifted by the scene's long-awaited arrival. Instead I was sitting there in a cinemas as a mid-40s man thinking 'yeah, but when is the actual song going to start mate, this is just the intro'. Although to be fair, back in '94 your humble correspondent was breaking out the blastbeats, a style of music which is admittedly far more deliberately inaccessible than anything on offer here. [ BACK ]

*3 Going in somewhat blind other than the trailer, I had to keep reminding my expectant brain that despite the Scottish accents, desaturation and fixation on narcotics, this was the world of Brian Welsh, not Irvine. And much like my comparative-quandary with Booksmart, I'm still having to resist the urge to compare Beats with Trainspotting for seven paragraphs. To do so wouldn't be necessarily lazy (they do share common strands of cultural DNA), but it would certainly be unhelpful. Suffice to say that while there's a debt owed to the Danny Boyle film, this dances to its own physical, rather than existential, drum. [ BACK ]

*4 These walkouts didn't occur with an air of fear, anger or disgust, more a plodding admission of 'yeah, this isn't for me'. I genuinely wish that more films were this sure-footed in their execution, instead of trying to be all things to all viewers. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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