Capturing the rave scene in Scotland in its dying days, Brian Welsh’s spirited Beats is a slice-of-life portrait of the kids that won’t go down without a fight. It’s 1994, and best friends Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorne Macdonald) are on the phone chatting excitedly about the new EDM track they’ve discovered. “I waited two days on the radio to tape it,” Spanner says, immediately evoking a nostalgic romanticism when music was discovered like treasure.
Beats is propelled by an old fart piece of legislation: Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill which sets a ban on “gatherings around music characterized wholly or predominantly by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” Characters will spit this phrase at several moments, tutting the T’s like a sort of battle cry. No stuffy laws will subdue the freewheeling spirit of kids just looking to escape from the West Lothian grey. The bill is only fuel for the fire.
A pirate radio station is holding a secret rave, ostensibly as a revolt, but really to get drunk in a field. For Johnno and Spanner, it’s particularly imperative that they make it to this rave—Johnno’s family is moving away in the week, and his parents have made it more than the clear that they want their son to use this opportunity to stay away from Spanner’s influence.
Welsh films the proceedings in crisp black and white. Nostalgia is omnipresent in that sense, reminiscent of an old photograph but it’s also representative of how stifled the two teens feel without the music to get them by. Nevertheless, the palette does nothing to dampen the vibrancy of its world—even when its drenched in grey, Scotland has never looked so alive.
Beats isn’t totally unlike Spike Island or the many other music films that look back on those periods of history as a time when we didn’t realise how special they were until it’s over. But it’s also more than just about the music. The film is a beautiful look at male friendship, masculinity and the ways in which men love each other. While Johnno is about to leave his council flat, Spanner is stuck with the constant abuse of his older brother. Men are forced to keep their emotions inside until it explodes in rage, and the film explores how such toxic ideas threaten to pass on down through generations. Spanner and Johnno’s relationship feels that much more notable because of how genuinely kind they are to each other. Only then, it hurts when they have to say goodbye.
The journey is more thrilling than the destination, but when they do make it to the illegal rave, Welsh recreates that feeling of drug-aided bliss with stunning results. For a hallucinatory few minutes, you’re placed within the sweaty bodies of teens dancing their cares away. Beats thrums with a ferocious energy; it feels like the colours are threatening to burst out of its monochrome aesthetic — and for a moment, they do.