Adapted from a one-man stage play by Kieran Hurley, 'Beats', co-written by Hurley with director Brian Welsh, is set in central Scotland in 1994, in the wake of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. Notoriously, Section 63 of the act, just passed by John Major's Conservative government, empowers the police to stop any gathering of more than 20 people in the open air when listening to music that is 'wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats'. This infamous and much scoffed-at quote kick-starts Brian Welsh's second feature film since 'In Our Name' (2010) and following several high-profile BBC television dramas he wrote and directed, including 'Black Mirror' and the award winning musical drama 'Glasgow Girls' (2015).
The lamentable quote is also the source of a running joke voiced by pirate-radio DJ and rabble-rowser, 'D-Man' (Ross Mann) who exhorts his listeners to revolt and embrace 'rave-a-geddon'. Set as it is at the tail-end of 15 years of Tory rule, in the limbo years between the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair (the latter seen declaiming against urban squalor on television monitors in a shop window), 'Beats' plays out on the cusp of another change. This occurred when the anti-establishment ethos of the UK's free party scene was on the turn into the next era's highly commercialised, homogenised club culture, when a brief moment of youth protest was snuffed out.
Falkirk-born Welsh uses his rebellious rave backdrop to focus on two 15 year-old, chalk-and-cheese best friends: quiet, insecure schoolboy Johnno (Christian Ortega), who has a part-time job stacking shelves at the local supermarket, and his lanky, smart-ass pal Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) who lives with his sadistic drug-dealing brother. The pals have grown up close together in a West Lothian housing scheme and their tenderly drawn friendship is about to be severed by Johnno's imminent removal to a new-build house in an outer suburb.
Johnno's de facto stepfather Robert (Brian Ferguson), a seemingly mild policeman who will later prove to be a cowardly thug, is keen for the family to move up in the world; Johnno's mother Alison (Laura Fraser) wants to remove him from the bad influence of Spanner whom she refers to as 'scum'.
Spanner overhears her remark. It is Johnno's embarrassment and hurt on behalf of his friend, coupled with the prospect of Spanner being left alone with his violent bully of a brother, Fido (Neil Leiper), that sparks off the main movement of the film. The pals decide to head out for one last night together, joining up with a bunch of more worldly party-goers, including Spanner's older cousin Wendy (Rachel Jackson) on their way to an illegal protest rave publicised by DJ D-Man. The two boys' rave experience to date has been restricted to bedroom dancing to techno music, as we witness in an exuberant dance display by the gawky, physically uninhibited Spanner. On his way out to the gig, in an act of rebellion and knowing self-harm, Spanner snatches some of his brother's ill-gotten cash to fund the fun.
'Beats' is a kind of anthem to an anarchic moment in the UK's illegal rave scene when by word of mouth and myriad methods of transport, hundreds of people descended upon derelict warehouses and hangars up and down the country where makeshift sound systems and bad toilets were miraculously installed. It is a moment celebrated in Welsh's film with tremendous verve and veracity. This, along with its dry comic dialogue and fresh naturalistic performances from the film's lead players (and the rest of its largely unknown but soon-to-be-better-known cast) makes it hugely enjoyable. Issues of class and inequality are covered with a light touch along the way, although a furious tone occasionally breaks through, particularly when pious pronouncements from politicians are juxtaposed with real urban squalor.
The bold decision to shoot the film almost entirely in grainy black and white pays off – Benjamin Kracun's lens managing to connote memory with a minimum of nostalgia. The recent, much-lauded 'Roma' was also made in black and white, largely for artistic reasons and in order to evoke nostalgia. In contrast, Welsh's black and white aesthetic is strikingly apt for depicting the down-at-heel feel of post-industrial Scotland, while also offering a sharp contrast to the magic the boys find at the rave. In this, it bears comparison with 'La Haine' (1995) whose stark black and white cinematography captures the urban realism of its setting while also lending gravitas to its three young protagonists who are trying to survive on a depressed housing estate in Paris.
In another bold move, colour starts seeping in to the picture as the drugs kick in during the final act. Welsh cites Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 avant-garde film 'Rumble Fish' as an influence, peppering red flashes amongst the black and white. The final act of 'Beats' plays out as a tremendous rave, which the filmmakers staged for real in an abandoned warehouse at a secret location somewhere in Glasgow. It certainly feels very real. The film's soundtrack, which includes rave classics like 'Song of Life' by Leftfield, 'Hyperspeed' by The Prodigy and 'Belfast' by Orbit, all hand-picked by music director/composer Keith McIvor (aka JD Twitch of Glasgow's DJ duo Optimo) reaches its pitch in this hectic rave sequence. It is the only scene shot in colour, occasioned by Johnno and Spanner having their first encounter with ecstasy.
Kracun's widescreen suddenly bursts into spectacularly multi-coloured, eye-popping psychedelic visuals, as the rush of uninhibited communal euphoria is captured in a way that takes the breath away. This gorgeous light show is intercut with images of crumbling industrial landscapes (condensed into striking footage of the blowing up of Ravenscraig) ultimately dissolving into shots of ecstatic ravers as the music's beat quickens.
The scene is intoxicating and thrilling, representing for our two 15-year-old heroes something akin to a promised land – exhilaration, joy and dis-inhibition replacing boredom, awkwardness and repression. We sense there will be a reckoning, and so it comes to pass. We sense too that the outcome of this ecstatic experience will differ for the two friends. For Johnno, it will be a source of growth and liberation, for Spanner, something darker, relating perhaps to addiction and losing his way.
Unusually, 'Beats' is a tender tale of the love between two adolescent boys who know in their heart of hearts that they will lose touch as their lives diverge. Onscreen captions and snapshots at the film's end testify to this, offering glimpses of how their lives pan out afterwards. Hindsight, knowing what comes next, lends a special melancholy to proceedings. Archive footage of a soon-to-be prime minister Tony Blair recurs throughout, turning him into a kind of spectral presence that haunts the entire film, his false promise of a new dawn presaging the fate of at least one of our heroes, who – we just know – will not fulfill his potential and will be left behind.