Every generation uses music as a way to convey feelings in instances when words simply will not suffice. It is in mid-90s Scotland where we find two friends with a lot of big feelings living in a society that is trying to suppress one of their primary outlets of expression. Johnno (Cristian Ortega) is a reserved teenager from a nice enough family who is introduced while thrashing around his room, phone in hand, to the local pirate radio station as pulse-pumping rave music blasts from the speakers. Dancing on the other end of that receiver is Spanner (Lorn Macdonald), Johnno’s best friend who comes from a family whose reputation is pretty much garbage within the community. The two are trying to enjoy the last gasps of a movement that is being trounced upon by the government. The United Kingdom’s 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act has just been passed in an effort to cut rave culture off at the knees. Under this proclamation, gatherings of 20 or more people for the purpose of consuming music characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats is strictly prohibited. Older generations never seem to understand the youth culture of the time, and taking away this music is taking away an identity.
The fight against their music is not the only major change occurring to this friendship. Johnno’s stern, yet loving, mother, Alison (Laura Fraser, Breaking Bad), is dating a milquetoast policeman, Robert (Brian Ferguson), who has convinced her to move the family to a traditional suburb that is more suitable and safe for a family on this rise. The move would also conveniently get Johnno away from Spanner, who serves as a consistent nuisance to the family in their eyes. Before he is taken away from everything he knows, Johnno and Spanner decide to have one last night out with an assortment of friends at an underground rave that is flying in the face of every government ordinance. They do not have much in the way of real power, as they are burdened with knowing their lot in life is all but predetermined, but they can still carve out a place for themselves if they can make it to this gathering.
But it is not truly about making it to the rave, is it? Their lives are going to keep heading down their respective paths no matter how memorable a night they share. Johnno is going to be expected to fall into the cookie-cutter middle class existence where a unique personality is barely tolerated, much less appreciated. The outlook is even bleaker for Spanner, as his only semblance of a family is his ex-con brother, Fido (Neil Leiper), who gleefully terrorizes him as often as he gets the chance. The night is about celebrating a friendship before real life hits you like a load of bricks. The film hints at potential interests for Johnno aside from Spanner in the form of an older crush, Laura (Gemma McElhinney), who suffers with an abusive boyfriend, but the film seems content to focus on the relationship between Johnno and Spanner. The film loses a bit of its propulsive energy in the second act as the focus spreads a bit more, but the transcendent joy radiating from the screen as we reach the climax makes up for any minor missteps.
Beats expertly conjures a believable sense of time and space with its beautiful black and white cinematography. The use of relatively unknown actors lends weight to the idea that this is an undiscovered relic from the heart of the 1990s. Cristian Ortega and Lorn Macdonald effortlessly inhabit these disaffected teens in a manner that realistically conveys the helplessness of those who serve at the whim of a greater authority. The music that is supplied by JD Twitch, along with a large swath of rave-centric tracks from the time period, shines a light on the conflict within the boys that defies description. Music is the lifeblood for the characters, and for the movie itself. There are moments of imperfection, but the movie soars when it delicately explores how it feels to be connected to another through friendship. Beats is a love letter to the tiny moment when you truly feel free.
Beats comes to DVD on a single disc in 480p. The resulting image is quite strong and suits the low-budget nineties aesthetic the film is showcasing. The image feels a bit flat with little in the way of fine detail, but nothing appears to be muddy. There is not an overwhelming amount of compression artifacts or digital noise. The gritty look of the film is a creative choice that captures the spirit of the time period. The black-and-white photography has some nice contrast and fairly smooth gradients. There are a couple bursts of color during the rave sequence that add a bit of visual flair. This presentation holds up favorably to an HD stream I watched of the film when it was released in virtual cinemas. This is not a film that is meant to look super sleek, so this disc does a fine job of accurately presenting the film.
The audio portion of the disc fares very well with its Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The film is an ode to 90s techno music, and this track honors that suitably. Dialogue comes through crystal clear right in the center channel. The Scottish dialects can be a bit challenging to wrap your head around, so I would suggest turning on the provided English subtitles during your viewing experience. Sounds are balanced well with nothing ever feeling overpowered. The surround channels employ some engaging sound effects such as city noise and ambient music. The actual music being coveted by our protagonists hits really hard within the mix. The track leaves you fully immersed in this world when they are losing themselves to the music. You can feel the bass pumping though your body right alongside the characters. This is an audio track serves the film incredibly well.
- Scotland 1994 – The Making of Beats: A seven-minute featurette in which the cast and crew discuss the themes and characters, the story’s origin as a play, shooting the rave and more. It is fun to hear the experiences of the cast letting loose at the rave.
- Beats Photo Gallery: A collection of 20 stills from the film.
- Poster Evolution Gallery: A collection of 11 posters used for the film.
- Theatrical Trailer: A two-minute trailer that encapsulates the story pretty well without giving away every plot point.
Beats is an exciting and moving love letter to youthful rebellion. It cannot be understated how important music is to growing up and finding ways to express yourself. The film features some really exceptional performances and an excitement that cannot be denied. Music Box Films has done a swell job with this DVD release. Fans of rave music or compelling coming of age tales should mark this one down on your list to check out. Recommended
Beats will be available to purchase on DVD and Digital on September 8, 2020.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the DVD.
Disclaimer: Music Box Films has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.