Beats | Directed by Brian Welsh | Comedy, Crime, Drama | 1h 41m
West Lothian circa 1994 is not the backdrop for many films, and BEATS is here to show us that maybe that’s a mistake. Johnno and Spanner are both working class kids, but while Johnno’s mum and stepdad are desperate for him to keep out of trouble, the only adult that seems to be in Spanner’s life is his big brother, who’s totally unpredictable and seems to be involved in some highly profitable criminal miscellany.
Uniting them both is a love of music – high tempo, electronic, frankly quite terrible music. Circumstances threaten to separate them, and so they resolve to have one last hurrah. On the horizon, too, is the Criminal Justice and Public Order bill, which will criminalise unauthorised gatherings of people intent on dancing to songs with repetitive beats – in other words, raves. A huge but secret rave is organised as a retaliatory middle-finger. One thing leads to another, and our two protagonists decide to attend.
It took me time to settle into BEATS. The dialogue is, at least to begin with, too stilted and theatre-esque, and I didn’t realise until the end credits that the film actually is based on a play by Kieran Hurley. What ultimately holds the film together when the script is waning is its performers: Cristian Ortega and Lorn Macdonald (Johnno and Spanner, respectively) are fantastic leads who can really capture the elation of loving people and the pathos of losing them. It’s in the little glances and the wobbles of the voice as much as it’s in the impassioned declarations. It’s real and it’s affecting.
Their relationship is brilliantly captured by cinematographer Benjamin Kracun. Much of the film’s first act is shot in static, locked-off shots, but as the film progresses things become more dynamic and exciting (there were some shots that put me in mind of Taika Waititi, oddly enough). In a similar way, I was initially perplexed by the use of black and white, but as the film headed towards its climax, all things started to fall in to place.
Brian Welsh’s direction also deserves real plaudits. The parallels between the ending of rave culture and the ending of Johnno and Spanner’s friendship are clear enough, but there’s more to the film than that. Tony Blair’s haunting visage pervades the opening act, harking back to a time when he was still leader of the opposition, promising a future that he would never come close to delivering. You could read this any way you like, but for me it’s the strange sense of futility it conjures up that I found most affecting about BEATS. Almost everyone in this story has good intentions, whether that’s obvious from the off or not. But good intentions are only worth so much, and that’s an idea which runs throughout the film, right up until its impeccable final scene. Welsh deserves the credit for keeping the film thematically consistent till the end.
When the rave begins, it’s a moment of pure ecstasy (for want of a better word), and you would be hard pushed not to end up smiling maniacally along with the dancers on-screen. It may not have grabbed me immediately, but by the time we were entering the third act BEATS had me totally entranced. It’s a wonderfully judged portrayal of friendship and love, and a wonderful portrayal of working-class Scotland into the bargain.
The music’s still shit though.