It was 90s fever at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, which kicked off its run in 1990’s California with the charming, albeit forgettable, Mid90s and closed out on the 1990’s Scottish rave scene in indelible, homegrown indie darling Beats.
Director Brian Welsh transports us to a rough neighbourhood in West Lothian; the year is 1994 and we’re introduced to our leading duo of Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorne Macdonald). Despite being worlds apart – the former of the pair is buckled-down, from a well-read family with some aspirations to make something of his life; the latter, not so much – the two 15-year-olds are the bestest of pals. When the police start cracking down on the UK’s ever-growing rave scene (a new bill has been introduced that makes events “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” illegal, you see) the boys catch whiff off a big FU to the government – a gigantic rave in a secret location to show the boys in blue no one can shut them down – and, as a last bout for their friendship before Johnno moves away, decide to be rebellious youths one last time.
As a Scottish film, comparisons to the beloved Trainspotting are almost a given. But they perhaps feel warranted here; with a similar nihilism coursing through its veins and a lot of thematic similarities, Beats could easily pass as a spiritual successor to Danny Boyle’s 1996 smash-hit – both are charged with a shot of ecstasy and an abrasive energy whilst also celebrating off-kilter friendships and relishing in their Scottish culture too – so it’s easy to see where Welsh’s inspiration comes from. The premise perhaps sounds well and truly over-tread but in the hands of Welsh, it feels pulpy and exuberant. This is a scrappy piece punctuated with flinty dialogue, frenetic filmmaking and a techno-fuelled energy that will make your ears ring but it’s s the superbly realised friendship between Johnno and Spanner that is the beating heart of Beats; they’re bubbly, loud and ratty boys that have cultivated a friendship out of troublesome behaviour. Yet, there’s something so endearing about their love for one another, something so charming. The screenplay breathes such charisma into their friendship; it’s, in-parts, celebrating the blissful ignorance of being a teen whilst also scrutinising the bittersweet, melancholic fact that such friendships aren’t forever. As a result, there’s somewhat of a sadness permeating the proceedings – notably the final act – that provides the narrative with a much-needed dose of heart and levity.
Beats is at its best when it’s focused on Johnno and Spanner; scenes where the pair aren’t together living it up feel dull in comparison and an arc involving Johnno’s step-dad, police officer Robert (Brian Ferguson), feels very tacked on. There’s also a fascinating subplot involving Spanner’s dangerously erratic older brother Fido (Neil Leiper) but it’s mostly left to the sidelines and quickly dismissed towards the end. However, these issues feel minor; Beats has a lot of moving parts to it that don’t all work but this is, for the most part, a story about two friends taking to a rave as their final hurrah and it’s quite the treat. From brilliant Scottish humour to two endearing lead characters, an ensemble all on top-form and hallucinatory rave sequences all anchored by a gorgeous black-and-white visual palette that keeps the film feeling timeless, as well as a relic of its time we’ve been lucky to stumble upon, Beats is an ode to the 90s that is unflashy, punchy and not bothered with ramming nostalgia down its audience’s throat every 5 minutes. It’s a celebration of friendship, music, adolescence and Scotland – all bundled in one of the most indelible and delightful indie films you’ll see all year. Like Johnno and Spanner, it’s a ratty and exuberant film but one that reveals itself to be quite the tender, affectionate piece of work.
Beats review by Awais Irfan at the Glasgow Film Festival 2019.