Review: Beats

Music is a social litmus test; it underlines the social movements of a decade. ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon and ‘Volunteers’ by Jefferson Airplane highlighted an opposition to the war and chaos of the 60s. ‘I Want to Break Free’ by Queen and ‘Walk on The Wild Side’ by Lou Reed gave two depictions of groups marginalised by society based on their sexuality in the 70s and early 80s. Then there were the 90s, which were embodied by an underground revolt against the system in Britain. 

Rave culture cultivated widespread fear and panic in the eyes of authority, ultimately leading to the creation of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. With the target set on rave music, gatherings based around “music” that included sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats were classified as illegal. This social movement and revolt by the youth were perfectly captured in documentary form in Jeremy Deller’s Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992, which screened in parallel with Brian Welsh’s Beats at the Melbourne International Film Festival. And if Everybody in the Place was an encapsulation of the rave movement, then Beats is its equally stunning counterpart.

Beats expounds upon rave culture by exhibiting the last hurrah of Scotland’s rave scene through two characters ― the anarchist Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) and his doleful and less enthusiastic best friend Johno (Cristian Ortega) ― who explore the underground of Glasgow to attend one final “rave to the grave event”. With the film’s depiction of drugs and music,  there could be a superficial comparison made to films like Trainspotting (1996) and Human Traffic (1999), but Beats carves itself a divergent path from its contemporaries as a holistically visceral film, distinguishing itself not only style but story. 

Beats contrasts two significantly different classes within Scotland, through its two main characters: Johno, raised right and proper, is a world away from his chaotic and lower-class friend Spanner, despite their upbringing together in Glasgow. But the  mutual respect for music in both men’s lives brings them closer together and leads them on a chase to find the final rave event in 1994. It’s a near-mythical journey formative to them finding themselves, all set against the backdrop of a Scotland undergoing massive social change. The relationship is naturalistically developed as both boys grow into men in their discovery of a world wholly new to themselves. 

Opting for a crisp monochromatic colour scheme, Welsh immortalises his characters through an air of fantasy, suggestive of a bygone era never to be repeated. Similar to the way Alfonso Cuarón most recently utilised monochrome in Roma (2018), Welsh lends the film a nostalgic tone that wouldn’t have existed in colour. While the use of black and white can be perceived as a simple indulgent choice, Beats exploits it for all it’s worth ― in its climax,  the film so terrifically accentuates shadow and juxtaposes an absence of colour. In an intoxicated state Johno experiences a burst of colour in his high that is established in the hallucinogenic imagery used by Welsh ― and the once monochromatic film is transformed, as the screen fills with an abundance of colour. Since the scene is being held in the middle of a rave, the high is accentuated by rhythmic beats, so immersive that the audience might feel themselves being eased into its trance-like state.  Welsh wields colour in culturally specific items, endowing them a magic quality amongst his otherwise complete devotion to a colourless frame. When music is played on a small hand radio, a glint of red colours the screen. Slowly, this motif increases in prominence until Welsh unveils to the characters (and his audience), in one of the film’s most visually stunning scenes, the colours that can come from a sense of freedom and release. With Johno and Spanner, this sense of freedom comes from their ability to embrace their youthful present, despite locked in protest against other authoritative figures ― whether this be parents, police or in the case of Johno, a mixture of both.

Welsh ensures that the two worlds of his protagonists, trapped between their wish for freedom, and the stifling establishment that prohibits it, is on stark display. Such is when Spanner and Johno escape to find the underground society of ravers; here, Welsh shifts the concentration of the camera to the shadows that reveals the abandoned warehouse where the boys have entered into. Energetic cuts between a large audience of ravers and the constant strobe effects of the lighting at the final party emphasises the chaotic nature of the drug fuelled event occurring within the venue, bringing Welsh’s audience right into the party and into Johno’s own drug fuelled state. Welsh plays a contrast between the dazed euphoria of Johno’s high and a violent police attack ― where a battalion of police attempt to take down the illegal party ― to emphasise the divergent perceptions of two different generations.

Beats manages to seamlessly blend the fast paced beats of rave music and narrative to create an atmosphere that is simultaneously energetic and thoughtful in its approach. Using period appropriate artists such as The Prodigy and Plastikman, Welsh employs the rhythmic, psychedelic nature of the soundtrack’s beats to enhance his most pivotal scenes. ‘Annihilating Rhythm’ by UltraSonic establishes a poignancy that would not exist with a score created specifically for the film. Where a film score would establish an emotion, the use of ‘Annihilating Rhythm’ creates a sonic vibrancy in its full on nature, and as a rave classic, brims with nostalgia. Beats both taps into the innate sentimental value of its soundtrack and its associated cultural references, and presents a vision of the past that entices an audience unfamiliar with the 90s rave scene. Utilising different sound bites throughout the film ― from our initial bedroom-set introductions to when Johno and Spanner part ways ― the choice of music plays an important role setting and shifting the tone. In one scene where a group that Johno and Spanner have joined, start to embroil into a heated and violent altercation, the music that plays is a track without a singular repetitive beat; unreliability parallels the violence of the characters and the instinctive nature of their actions. This emphasis on the music in driving  each scene’s tonal values, is powerful and effective.

Brian Welsh has created a vision of a bygone Scotland: one in which outcasts could “rave to the grave” and have the time of their lives, albeit under a strict code of secrecy. Beats, as a  nostalgic exhibition of culture, is honest and wholly wild in its recognition and reflection on the struggles of a marginalised and misunderstood subculture. From its characters to Welsh’s shot selection, the film emulates expertly the raves that filled Soctland’s underground. It is this vibrancy and electric energy that makes Beats an endearing and ecstatic depiction of the past.

Beats played at the Melbourne International Film Festival.


David Paicu is a writer easily influenced but still ready to deliver his opinion on anything whether it comes to film or food.

David Paicu

An easily influenced writer with a love for film and all things Basquiat. Works of his have appeared in Film In Revolt, Post Up and Lot's Wife.