It's 1994, a small town in central Scotland. A new legislation effectively outlaws raves or public gatherings around amplified music characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats. Best mates Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) share a deep bond. The first is living with his criminal brother Robert (Brian Ferguson), the other is facing a move to a new town with his family and his potential new stepfather Sergeant Ian Black (Stephen McCole), who happens to be a cop. Now on the cusp of adulthood, life is destined to take them in different directions, Johnno’s family are moving him to a new town and a better life, leaving Spanner behind to face a precarious future. The party is well and truly over. But this summer is going to be different for them, and for the country. In pursuit of adventure and escape, the boys head out on one last night together to an illegal rave. The two friends steal cash from Spanner's older brother and journey into an underworld of anarchy, freedom and collision with the forces of law and order. Under the hazy stewardship of pirate radio DJ D-Man (Ross Mann), the boys journey into an underworld of anarchy, freedom and a full-on collision with the forces of law and order.
After "Glasgow Girls’", this is Brian Welsh's second feature set in Scotland. "Beats" is based on Kieran Hurley’s 2012 play of the same name. It's a story about a 15-year-old boy going to a rave at the time 'The Criminal Justice Act' is introduced. The film weavers the personal story of Johnno and Spanner together with the wider socio-political discussion about Scotland in 1994, what 'The Criminal Justice Act' means, and the ideas it represented. This may make it sound dry, but it’s important to mention that this is all done in a way that's both hilarious and profoundly moving. The screenplay is a piece of single-voice narration, telling the story of the time, the place and a journey to a rave using the inner voice of multiple characters; Johnno, Spanner, Robert and Alison (Laura Fraser), Johnno's mum. It has very few actual scenes. It feels authentic and timely and a lot of people recognised themselves in the story. Young people loved the energy of it, but there’s also an intergenerational thing in it too, and a lot of older people connected with it through the character of Allison. Great characters, great scenes, and the right balance between a party’ film and a film that actually has something meaningful to say about this shared cultural moment.
Many of the characters in the film are young and idealistic. The sad thing is that this idealism can be fleeting. We all have to fight hard as we get older to try to maintain this idealism. This is one of the ideas of the film. The best thing you can do as a young person is to disobey because without disobedience how can we carve out a new direction, how can we look to the future with hope? The sad thing about disobedience is that when it catches, when it becomes fashionable or cool, it inevitably becomes the mainstream, it’s monetised and sucked into the system. In the film, it’s important to mention that we're coming to this rave at the fag-end of the dance scene. 'The Criminal Justice Act' stamped out the embers of the free-party scene. Since then, dance music culture, along with every other aspect of our lives, has become commercialised. The film itself goes on a varied musical journey from some of the unsophisticated but banging hardcore tracks that the boys would have listened to in their bedroom to these big, profound, mind-expanding tracks from Detroit in the rave. The way a lot of the tracks have this reggae roots vibe. This brings a playful energy and humour to the images and seems to capture the spirit of the boys. When a lot of the raves are kicking off in London in the very early days, Jamaican sound systems would be borrowed and at times the music would borrow this flavour too.
Music is integral to the film. Back in the 90s the film makes endless mixtapes and it feels like a chaotic cassette mash-up, with beat-matching and tracks playing over each other. 'The Sub Club' is the spot and 'Optimo' at that time is widely regarded as the best night. First time Jeff Mills played 'The UK' was at 'Pure'. The rave is a pivotal scene in "Beats". It's clear from the outset that in order for the rave to feel real the film has to have a proper rave, with proper music, in a proper venue. And not only that it has to be 'The Rave', an absolute mega stomper, with everyone going nuts. The score feels as if a mixtape has been laid to picture. Put together by 'Keith McIvor', aka 'JD Twitch Of Glasgow’s' long-running 'DJ Duo Optimo', the 30 tracks uses in "Beats" not only help tell Johnno and Spanner’s story but also capture the excitement and adrenaline rush of getting caught up in the thrill of the rave. Drawing on exhaustive musical knowledge and recollections of parties in early-90s Glasgow, the soundtrack takes in big-hitters at the time such as 'The Prodigy', 'Orbital', 'Leftfield' and 'LFO' alongside cult techno tracks by the likes of 'Plastikman', 'Joey Beltram', 'N-Joi' and 'Model 500'. There are key releases from the pioneering Belgian dance label 'R&S', and classic rave anthems from original Dutch heavyweights such as 'Human Resource', 'Phantasia' and 'Inner Light', all of which would have been played at the time at clubs and free parties across 'The UK'.
The soundtrack brings together music from the original Detroit techno trio known as 'The Belleville Three', 'Juan Atkins' ('Model 500'), 'Kevin Saunderson' ('Inner City') and 'Derrick May'; via 'Francesco Tristano’s' version of ‘Strings Of Life' as well as 'Motor City' jams from 'Carl Craig' and 'Richie Hawtin'. 'Hawtin’s Plus 8 Labelmate Vapourspace' appears with his celestial epic ‘Gravitational Arch Kf 10’, first released in 1993 and which scores a pivotal scene in the film. 'The Orbital Brothers' have recorded a new version of their rave anthem ‘Belfast’ especially for "Beats. Threaded throughout are tracks from 'Sextant', 'David Cunningham'', John Broadwood', and cavernous dub from 'NYC’s Liquid Liquid'and 'UK' hardcore of 'Kaotic Chemistry And A Homeboy'. The mood is more important than being very strict about historical accuracy with regard to the music, though the majority of music used is of the era. Some music from completely beyond the world of dance music made it in there. Something like ‘Blue River’ by David Cunningham made it. Tracks by 'Carl Craig', 'Model 500' and 'Inner City' feature in the film. There is a deep connection to the music of Detroit here. That's the favourite music/visual moment in the film. It's the closest we've ever seen any film get to truly showing what those moments could be like. At the end of the film you release that everyone else has the same reaction, whether they had grown up in the 90s or the 60s. You come out of the cinema feeling you're actually in the middle of it, in the middle of a big, illegal rave.
In the mid-1990s, 'The United Kingdom' was overrun by ravesil, legal parties with heavy beats and an endless supply of drugs. The explosion of the free party scene and the largest counter-cultural youth movement in recent history is happening across 'The UK'. 'The Criminal Justice Bill' introduced by 'The Government' in 1994 criminalised gathering around repetitive beats. This led to massive protests and even more raves. Against that background, "Beats" showcases the unlikely friendship; between teens Spanner and Johnno in a Scottish town. Filmed in black and white, "Beats" finds real poignancy in the bond between these two innocents as they enter a wonderland of rebellion and romance. A heady solidarity is forged in the sweaty bodies, casual encounters and carefree exuberance of youth gathered in the pursuit of a good time. This universal coming of age story of friendship, rebellion and the irresistible power of gathered youth, is set to a soundtrack as eclectic and electrifying as the scene it gave birth to. A wildly entertaining end of an era party that brings a lump to the throat.
The film takes place during the mid-1990s’ free-party era, 'Castle Morton', 'Spiral Tribe', and there’s a strong 'Us vs Them' narrative running through the film. It's 25 years ago. But when we looking back at the 60s or 70s as a teenager, that era was pretty cool. We enjoyed fantasising at the revolutionary counter-culture power of 'Woodstock'. We feel the same about 'The M25' parties or 'Castle Morton' and the sense of anarchy, freedom and togetherness these represented. Talking about it now, you still get butterflies and a bit twitchy. You love the music, you love the sense of sheer lawlessness, but mostly you love the people.
The film feels like a memory. Something from a scrapbook of your teenage years, an important moment held sacred, almost mythologised. It seems to capture something about entrenched power’s inherent fear of young people and the weird radical possibility of young folk and social outsiders claiming shared space on their own terms, even when that’s just to dance and have a good time. If in and through that they find themselves thinking about how we as a society regard young people, about the importance of togetherness in spite of an individualistic society that alienates us from one another, and about the role of the police in that society, well, that’s even better. You’re left with a love letter to the dying days of the second summer of love.