It’s the summer of 1994 in a West Lothian housing scheme, and Britain is on the cusp of the New Labour era. The scene is set for Beats, an indie drama directed by Brian Welsh. Based on Kieran Hurley’s award-winning play of the same name, the story follows best pals Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) who share a love of acid house music. With the future of their friendship looking uncertain due to Johnno’s impending move out of town, they have a ‘fuck it’ moment and seek out an underground rave as a last hurrah.
Shot in an almost mythical monochrome, the black and white aesthetic lends itself to the fantastical and indestructible ideology of youth. Johnno and Spanner are coming of age through their somewhat troubled homelives, but they’re young, free, and together, so anything seems possible.
The dry Scottish humour in Hurley’s script is both playful and razor-sharp, and Welsh achieves an alarming authenticity in the film’s depiction of working-class Scotland. Encountering friends, foes, and family along the way, the turbulent path to the big night out is similar to Superbad, swapping out Goldschläger for tins of White Lightning or whatever cheap cider the gang can lay their hands on. Colour finally sparks onto the screen in an ecstatically artsy sequence that marks the pinnacle of Johnno and Spanner’s quest to ‘rave to the grave’, but as is quite often the case, the hype and excitement of the build up is more satisfying than the party itself.
There’s pressure on Ortega and Macdonald with their characters’ bromance being very much at the core of the piece. Thankfully, they deliver in spades and switch seamlessly between pithiness and poignancy. Avoiding the heightened stereotypes of the ‘ned’ persona, they are both excellent in portraying a relationship that is built on insulting one another, but ultimately having the other’s back. Macdonald in particular is a revelation. Standouts from the strong supporting cast include Neil Leiper as Spanner’s bullyboy older brother Fido and Ross Mann as pill popping D-Man, the poetic voice behind the radio station leading revellers to the prohibited gathering.
Amplified by an electric soundtrack that doffs its baseball cap to the likes of techno and happy house, Beats is a taut yet transcendent time capsule of a movie. It’s a rhythmic celebration of our formative years, capturing the reckless essence of youth itself.
See the trailer: