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Beats goes beyond the rave

Beguiling leads in film set against the backdrop of the introduction of draconian laws that attempted to crack down on dance music gatherings

17 May, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Lorn as Macdonald as Spanner in Beats

BEATS
Directed by Brian Welsh
Certificate 12a
☆☆☆☆

THE Criminal Justice Act, cooked up by John Major’s rudderless, pointless and fag-end Thatcherite government, was an attempt to stop young people gathering to dance to house music.

This film tells the story of two Scottish friends in 1994, who are keen to find out what this raving lark is all about, with the new draconian laws as the backdrop.

Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) and his friend Johnno (Christian Ortega) are the friends who see older kids having a grand old time. Stuck in the frustrating Neverland of not being children, but not quite being adults yet, they listen to pirate radio stations and dream of parties they can’t go to.

Johnno’s mother (Laura Fraser) has married a policeman, and they plan to leave their housing estate for a semi-detached new build in the suburbs. They’ve never approved of his friendship with likely-lad Spanner, and the move will, they say, be a fresh start.

We follow the pair (both are excellent) as they go through trials and tribulations concerning family politics, friendship, and underage raving, all set in a landscape of 1990s pop cultural references. From the clothes to the cars, this is a period piece, best of all illustrated by the soundtrack, which they’ve got just right. By 1994, there was some godawful “house” music being made. For every Detroit banger like The Chase by Model 500, which features, or Joey Beltram’s Energy Flash, there’s a few whiffs of commercial house, or headbanger horribleness that had little musical merit back then and has not aged well. The film reflects that.

It’s let down a little by a gangster/drug-dealing subplot. I was hoping it would flower into something a bit like Jonathan Harvey’s wonderful film Beautiful Thing. The ingredients are there, with two beguiling leads and a strong supporting cast, a script that has humour laced through it, but the twists detract.

Clever use of news footage – a young Tony Blair on the campaign trail – sets the scene. It feels authentic.

And as the film shows, it is interesting to consider the CJA did not quite do what Major’s government wanted it to do – raves still took place, though with extra grief for the organisers, and unnecessarily stretching police resources. It was merely a sop to scared Little Englanders who had read reports of hippies taking over village greens so they could take drugs in your front garden.

What really undid the movement – and this had already happened by 1994 – was it had simply been discovered and become mainstream. Plastic house music was in the charts.

Entrepreneurs set up super clubs, and instead of the idea of acid house music being about people getting together at low cost and dancing the night away, the capitalists were eyeing up the opportunities. To make it a commodity they could flog, they needed it not to seem easy to access and all-encompassing – there were velvet-roped VIP areas, guest lists and flyers that instead of celebrating a hippie aesthetic included scantily-clad women to “sell” the rave.

Beats does not attempt to delve into these issues.

There have been plenty of films about raving, such as Human Traffic, and they frequently fulfil the age-old mantra that other people’s drug experience stories are intensely boring.

Thankfully, Beats does not do that.

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