On April 8, 1994, southern California punk rockers, The Offspring, released their third studio album: Smash. It would become the best selling independent album of all time. Across the pond, Britpop phenom Blur hit the scene with Parklife. That album would be certified “quadruple platinum” when all was said and done. Four months later, Manchester’s Oasis debuted with Definitely Maybe, the fastest-selling U.K. album of the time, eventually moving over 2 million units. But back in Seattle, Washington, Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain stuck a 20-gauge shotgun to his chin and pulled the trigger. The date was April 5, 1994. Cobain was 27.
From the vantage point of 2020, the music scene of 1994 feels like a supernova. Everything was exploding, and everything was coming to an end. But not fast enough, as far British Parliament was concerned. Distressed by behavior they deemed antisocial, Parliament passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill of 1994, which outlawed unlicensed gatherings “at which amplified music is played … wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” The aim was to kill unlicensed and illegal raves—the kind made famous by the traveller festival circuit, specifically the 1992 Castlemorton Common Festival, which attracted between 20,000 and 40,000 attendants, not to mention a slew of media attention, most of which focused on how the festival was policed. And if the policing at Castlemorton looked like the policing in Beats, then the operative word would be: Poorly.
And not just because the cops are decked in riot gear while the kids are unarmed. But because the motivation behind the policing has less to do with upholding law and order and more to do with squashing youth culture so violently it dare not raise its defiant head again.
Based on the play by Kieran Hurley, who co-authored the screenplay with director Brian Welsh, Beats is a coming-of age-story of two teens amidst the ’94 Scottish rave scene.
Shot in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Benjamin Kracun—invoking the British tradition of kitchen sink realism—Beats centers on Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald), two friends so close you wonder if there isn’t more to their affection than meets the eye. If they were older, there might be. But for now, Johnno and Spanner are like two little otters adrift at sea, desperately clinging to one another while the storm rages.
Johnno’s stepfather is a cop (Brian Ferguson), and Spanner’s older brother, Fido (Neil Leiper), is a capital-B Bully. Work offers little solace, and school seems to be a non-factor. The only thing that gives either an ounce of freedom is rave music, which they dance to with abandon. But only on the radio, neither has been to the infamous raves that brought the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill about in the first place. And life is coming at them fast; if they don’t act now, the whole scene will blow past them. It might have already.
Both Ortega and Macdonald give solid performance: Ortega is the proverbial deer in headlights until he slides behind the wheel; Macdonald is a fury of impulses that act and react before his mind can catch up. As they work their way from the bottom rung of society to the underground, their paths cross with a collection of stereotypes, but they are ciphers more than characters. They provide color and texture to the world, and editor Robin Hill allows space for everyone. The editing favoring longer takes over choppy cutting, and the camera favors distance over claustrophobia.
But the heart of the film belongs to Johnno and Spanner: Their commitment to each other, and their shared love of the music. Life will eventually take them in diverging directions, but for the here and now, two hearts beat as one.
Directed by Brian Walsh
Screenplay by Brian Walsh and Kieran Hurley
Based on the play by Kieran Hurley
Produced by Camilla Bray
Starring: Cristian Ortega, Lorn Macdonald, Brian Ferguson, Neil Leiper, Laura Fraser, Ross Mann, Rachel Jackson, Amy Manson, Gemma McElhinney
Music Box Films, Not rated, Running time 101 minutes, Streaming.