Brian Welsh’s Beats follows a tried and tested feel-good formula; the “last night of adolescence” movie. Two Glaswegian pals are going to be pulled apart by circumstance; Jonno is about to move to the Barratt-built suburbs with his aspirational mom and her new policeman husband, while Spanner is staying behind in the schemes with his cartoon psycho brother. The night in question is to be spent at one of the last, soon-to-be illegal raves of 1994, and so their final night together is also the end of another era, the point at which the free party scene ran up against the Criminal Justice Bill.
Rave nostalgia is a burgeoning mini-industry these days, both as a source of reminiscences for aging pillheads who want to look back on their glory days and for adolescents disposed to wallowing in a sense of pleasurable belatedness. Beats therefore has ample resources to draw its period detail and expertly curated soundtrack from; the welter of rave videos that have been made available on YouTube, the popularization of art projects like Mark Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, or books such as Exist to Resist which document the exotic lost tribes of the long second Summer of Love in vivid black-and-white. But Beats succeeds in being more than just a clunky coming of age tale in a number of key ways.
One is the way it locates the end of rave within a particular political moment. There are glimpses of New Labour on the TV promising to match John Major’s Tories as the party of law and order. In the formulaic final sequence that sketches out the future trajectories of the key characters, the fact that neither of the main parties opposed the Criminal Justice Bill is pointedly flagged up. Tony Blair, associated in the film with the policeman stepfather, talks of creating a “new Britain” in one clip. Yet, ironically, something genuinely new in the early nineties was the music and culture around rave, and the way it dissolved many of the hierarchies and oppositions of everyday life. Rave seemed to anticipate the genuinely classless, modern society that New Labour promised to deliver, but didn’t, giving us instead the cheap regimentation of Barratt estates and the market-sanctioned superclubs and festivals.
Another is the way in which the film makes explicit the overlap between rave and a key target of the Tories in the early nineties: the traveler community. Anarchism, activism, and ecstasy were a heady combination that drew many working-class youths into an entirely different set of relations to music, politics, and pleasure, with often life-changing results. The anarchist element of the rave scene is literally given voice by another counterculture stock character, the truth-telling radio DJ, blasting the system and bringing the vibes to those cool enough to be tuned into the revolution.
While the characters in Beats never transcend cipher or cliché, they are largely secondary to what makes the film most interesting — the depiction of the rave itself. Almost from the moment the ravers arrive at their Arcadian secret destination, the film’s tone shifts to a softer and more expressive palette. The gorgeous, aquatic, black-and-white images of E-d up ravers suffused in flickering strobe lights eventually yields to a long, colorized impressionistic montage. This is where Beats, in its experimental daring, starts to truly represent the radical tradition that it celebrates.
The sequence points in two directions — firstly to the modernist recent past, but also, by incorporating images of high-tech factories overlain with swirling colors, the hammer and sickle, and other elements of radical chic, it gestures toward our own politicized present. In the delirium of the rave the boys are given a glimpse forward from the last upsurge of utopianism just as it is about to be clamped down on, and from there to the reemergence of collective projects and arguments around psychedelia, the counterculture, and new forms of togetherness that have emerged on the Corbynite left; Acid Communism, Collective Joy, Communal Luxury. It’s this exhilarating central passage of the film that allows it to transcend some of the hokey and rote drama that surrounds it. Beats finally serves as a powerful reminder that the utopian impulse never really disappears, that radical and visionary art expands and shapes lives, and that the present is always open to the possibilities of being transformed.