FilmSpace is at the 15th Glasgow Film Festival, bringing many reviews on loads of new films. Film critic Calum Cooper shares his verdict on this year’s closing film, Beats.
Beats – ★★★★☆
Glasgow’s 15th Film Festival opened with Mid90s, a 1990s film set in Los Angeles. Now we come full circle, by returning to the 1990s for our closing film, Beats. Based on the play by Kieran Hurley, the film takes place in West Lothian rather than L.A. Our leading duo are two Scottish teenagers, Johnno and Spanner (Cristian Ortega and Lorn Macdonald respectively). How appropriately Trainspotting-like of them.
Johnno is a mild-mannered teen, uncomfortable with his home life and feeling uneasy about the future. His one source of comfort is his best pal Spanner, who, despite his rough background and family, is as caring as he is wild. The two are thick as thieves, which makes the news of Johnno moving away very hard. But it gives Spanner an idea. The government has just outlawed raves, or “public gatherings around amplified music characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”, and so he decides to take Johnno to a mass illegal rave as a form of departure. One last night out to remember.
By all outward appearances this shouldn’t be my kind of film. I know my middle-class status is showing here, but I’ve never been one for raves or laddish gatherings involving mass amounts of strangers and drugs. To you that may prove how boring and snooty I am. Personally I think it explains why I’m so charming and good-looking. However, what makes Beats work so well isn’t just the surprisingly addictive tunes it names itself after. It’s the emotional core that champions friendship and solidarity.
The characters are written so well around one another that each moment of tension feels hostile, each moment of vulnerability feels sincere, and each moment of banter is hilarious.
And I really dug the characters that embodied that core. The performances from Ortega and Macdonald are a lot of fun to watch thanks to the on-screen bromance they capitalise on, but the way they speak and interact with one another generates a real sense of history between them. You feel the commitment the two of them have to one another despite everything going on in their respective lives, and that’s easily the film’s most intoxicating aspect, more so than the music. The characters are written so well around one another that each moment of tension feels hostile, each moment of vulnerability feels sincere, and each moment of banter is hilarious, my personal favourite being the excuse Spanner comes up with for Johnno’s boss to explain his absence from work.
Originally I wasn’t sure how I felt about the film’s decision to present itself in black and white. But, with some reflection, I think it was a clever choice. It is weird seeing a black and white film set in 1994, especially when Tony Blair appears to give speeches on the TV, but it seems to be reminiscing on a bygone era. With the announcement of the ban of raves, it seems as though something has been robbed from the community around Johnno and Spanner. It goes along with the youthful innocence of the pair, and how that is slowly disappearing too as they get older. The announcement of Johnno’s moving serves as a catalyst for these things to come together. The black and white cinematography not only adds to the film’s visual look, but it celebrates the joys and freedom of the past, whether that’s going to a rave or hanging out with your best friend.
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The only time colour is utilised is during the main rave sequence, a decision I’m not sure I fully agree with. Regardless, the film’s soundtrack is just as addictive as its characters and messages. Simultaneously jovial and fierce, as it accompanies the insanity of the narrative so effectively that it’s difficult, even for hardened snobs like myself, not to bob your head along to.
But it really is the friendship between Johnno and Spanner that makes the film as funny and as bittersweet as it is. Some characters, such as Johnno’s step-dad and Spanner’s brother, are a bit too underwritten to fully assist the story. But when the central friendship is as strong and as easy to invest in as Johnno and Spanner’s that almost ceases to matter. They serve as a platform for the film’s primary concepts of solidarity, whether that’s against arguably unlawful laws or the natural ladder of growth embedded into the circle of life. The outcome for these two characters is simultaneously poignant and melancholic, but the journey we go on with them to get to this seemingly inevitable conclusion has all you could ask for. Hearty laughs, delicious dialect and banter full of Scottish idioms, a genuine sense of affection for its subject matter and its occupants, and a dauntless commitment to its themes that rivals even the commitment Johnno and Spanner have to each other.
Maybe I’m more in tune with the rave-loving side of myself than I realise, but I had a really good time with Beats. Granted my enjoyment came from the sturdiness of the characters, and the visually and musically interesting way it presented its ideas, but I feel like that counts just as much as somebody enjoying it purely because it takes them back to their own raving days. It’s quite the crowd-pleaser in that sense, and it makes me want to seek out the original play. A fun, sincere, and classically Scottish romp to close yet another terrific year at the Glasgow Film Festival.