“The only good system is a sound system,” radio DJ D-Man bellows into the mic, preaching onto pirate waves. In Scot director Brian Welsh’s latest film Beats, the slightly crusty but endearing and seasoned D-Man is putting on a rave, and everyone who’s tuned into his frequency is invited. “It’s not a party, it’s a protest,” he continues, and the anti-establishment anger within me is stirring, regardless of how fictional this hardcore-playing pied piper is.
Set in Scotland in 1994 on the cusp of the Criminal Justice Act, black-and-white shot Beats centres around Johnno and Spanner, played by Cristian Ortega and Lorn Macdonald. The two best friends are about to take separate paths, their relationship microcosmic for the changing socio-political climate of the country. Johnno’s family are — in a word — nice. His mum’s met a copper who’s now moved in and they’re a nuclear unit of upstanding citizens, about to leave town for a better life. Spanner’s family are near enough non-existent, and he lives in a bare flat with his abusive older brother. “Scum”, according to Johnno’s mum.
After a heartfelt plea from Spanner for Johnno to join him at the rave, the night becomes critical, symbolic of so much more than one act of rebellion. When they steal Spanner’s shady brother’s money to pay their way, the stakes are swung to all or nothing. The party-cum-protest is their first chance as teenagers to experience the scene born out of 1989’s Second Summer of Love, and their last chance to do it together, not only because of their separation, but with the impending bill banning gatherings around music in open areas “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. As D-Man puts it: “They’re trying to privatise our minds.”
(LEFT) Cristian wears jumper ISSEY MIYAKE. Belt HUGO. Trousers MSGM.
(RIGHT) Lorn wears coat BAND OF OUTSIDERS.
Cristian wears jumper ISSEY MIYAKE. Belt HUGO. Trousers MSGM.
Lorn wears coat BAND OF OUTSIDERS.
“I think [Welsh] just assumed that we like to party,” Macdonald laughs when we meet in a Hackney warehouse, explaining how he and Ortega — real-life friends who met at drama school — were cast as the unlikely duo. “Brian always wanted to cast the two parts at the same time, it didn’t work out in the way he’d hoped. Then I was like: ‘My mate Cristian is a top actor, really good looking.’” Welsh wanted the time- stopping bliss of peaking at a party with your best friend while the rest of the world and its problems are locked away outside to be authentic on screen, and it shows. “When he was casting, there was a worry like, ‘Do these guys know what it’s like to just go out and have some fun?’” Macdonald continues. “Because a lot of the guys I was auditioning with didn’t, and they’d have to try and somehow experience that in the moment of recording.”
“Studying and living in Glasgow was some of the best research you can do for electronic dance music,” Ortega agrees. “Glasgow is one of the fucking pinnacle cities in the UK. So we’ve already been invested in the idea of club culture and nightlife.” That’s the beauty of Beats: clasping your comrade’s beaded face with clammy hands at 3AM will never stop feeling like a formative moment for teenagers, and everyone will be able to see themselves in the film, whether they’re a reluctant Johnno or a reckless Spanner. “I was explaining to Brian, when I was 15 me and a bunch of my mates stuck in to see Tiesto. It was a 12-hour rave at Ingliston market,” Ortega tells me, laughing. “It started at six and it finished at six in the morning. It was supposed to be over 18s only, and five or six of us went on this adventure on the outside of Edinburgh. I was like: ‘This story is my story!’”
It’s an ageless journey, one that Welsh has been on too, having tried to write a script about his rave years for a while. “Someone said, ‘you should go and see Beats by Keiran Hurley, the play,’” Ortega relays Welsh’s inspiration. “He thought it was the best thing he’d ever seen. The story spoke to him.” From there, Hurley and Welsh began to rearrange the script for screen and searching for their starring actors. “A lot of the research luckily was done prior to us even knowing that this was a film,” Ortega continues. “Being mates and growing up on nights out and sleeping in the same bed after, the kind of research that was so important for the characters in terms of their friendship, we didn’t have to work on any of that stuff, it was just there.”
(LEFT)Lorn wears jacket YOUTH CLUB INC. Trousers E.TAUTZ.
(RIGHT) Cristian wears jacket KENZO.
Lorn wears jacket YOUTH CLUB INC. Trousers E.TAUTZ.
Cristian wears jacket KENZO.
This being a film about music-led mutiny, the soundtrack is paramount, so Welsh called upon JD Twitch of iconic Glaswegian duo Optimo for another layer of expert authenticity. The result is a time- capsule collection of tracks, from heavyweights like The Prodigy, to The Joubert Singers’ magical classic, “Stand on the Word”. It goes without saying that the party scene 30 years ago was as different as the music, and as their main method of research Welsh had Ortega and Macdonald watch videos from iconic promoter brands like Fantazia, with thousands of people packed into fields off the motorway. “Brian showed us the behind the scenes of the filming of the ‘Out of Space’ music video by The Prodigy, too,” says Macdonald. “It’s The Prodigy basically hanging out, being daft, having a laugh. He was like, ‘That’s the energy we want!’”
A director who lived through it all and leads who’ve experienced the thrill of teenage emancipation together makes for a bona fide coming-of-age account. Far from being a cautionary tale, or a sickly sweet nostalgia wormhole, Beats shows that amongst the mundane — or even miserable — cycle of the everyday, momentous things can happen that will help you plant your place in the world, even once they become just a memory of a time and a place. “The night of the rave… It didn’t really feel like a film set at all, because the party was always constantly going on around us,” Ortega smiles and you get the sense that night was one he’ll carry forever. “I remember just grabbing Lorn at one point and being like, ‘This is our fucking job, buddy.’”
Hirokazu Endo using Bumble and bumble
Bari Khalique using Boy de Chanel and Bleu de Chanel 2-in-1 Moisturiser