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Lost In Music: Brian Welsh & Kieran Hurley Talk Beats
Alasdair Bayman , May 18th, 2019 11:53

New film Beats explores the burgeoning rave scene in Thatcher's Britain. Alsadair Bayman talks to director Brian Welsh and writer Kieran Hurley

Brian Welsh’s pulsating new film Beats focuses on two working-class Scottish lads in 1994. Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) find solace away from their lives in the music of Carl Craig, The Prodigy, and LFO. Yet, when the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 is introduced by the Tory government, their lives are reshaped by an act with the power “to remove persons attending or preparing for a rave”. Eliminating any possibility of the boys ever attending gatherings dedicated to electronic music, the pair seek solace in an underground radio station that is planning to revolt against the legislation. Nevertheless, it is not just their lives that are impacted by this law but the whole youth community. Banding together in an act of pure defiance against the government, Spanner, Johnno and a bunch of fellow ravers travel to a monumental rave on the outskirts of town. Engaging in a transcendental communal experience, friendship and freedom unite the two lads, as well as a generation of ravers.

Originally performed in 2012 at Glasgow's The Archers, then performed at The Fringe in the same year, Kieran Hurley's play of the same name provided the original premise of the screenplay for Beats. However, when discussing the process of adapting his own play to the screen on a pleasant spring morning over the phone, Hurley is transparent about the creative process: “The original play was something that happened quite early on in my career for me. Brian came to see it in London in 2012 and at the time he had, unbeknown to me, been hatching plans to make a feature film set in Scotland about the rave scene.”

To the film’s director, the experience of first seeing the play still lingers in his memory. “The reason I wanted to adapt the play into a film was because of the raw energy of Kieran's performance,” Welsh says. “I gained the sense coming out of the play, feeling like I had actually been on the night of my life with these two boys. But also I felt a whole range of emotions in relation to the period and the politics of Scotland at the time; to the relationship with the mother, the sense of the end of a post-industrial community, then this moment of defiance that is really all about people coming together sharing this beautiful communal experience whilst it is being stamped out by the authorities.’’

From the success of the stage play, its translation into a cohesive narrative film was something that the writer and director wanted to differentiate from one another. ''The play is not a conventional play. It is a solo storytelling piece with a third person narrative with me on stage as the only storyteller performer,'' Kieran explained to me. Unlike simply adapting Shakespeare to the screen, I quickly gained the sense that the original premise had been used as a skeleton for the new screenplay with both creatives adding new flesh and blood to the story through the medium of film.

Welsh adds an idiosyncratic touch specifically through shooting with black and white digital photography. Welsh ‘‘knew from quite early on watching the play that I wanted the film to be in black and white. I wanted the film to feel like a memory. I wanted something that absolutely nailed the period. Also, I felt much more connected to all the boys as you really look at them’.’

Speaking on the fundamental differences between film and theatre, Kieran makes apt reference to Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America. ‘'The thing with the play is you can jump around from point of view all the time, from Johnno to the policeman. You do that in a film and that's bonkers unless you make a virtue of it, to make the film in this stylised, heightened mode of storytelling. The play has the policeman character in an ongoing dialogue with his dead dad and that is the way we managed to bounce back to Thatcher. But you put that in the film and then you either have got magic realism going on with ghosts present like in Angels in America. You have to see that through and the whole film is told like that. That was not going to be the film we told. In the televised film version of Angels in America there is a commitment to that as a model of how the story is told. It is not just one moment where some guy speaks to a dead guy which is what it all would be in Beats.’’

The story they did end up telling culminates through its deep character study of the two boys into one defining and “totally transcendental” rave, in the eyes of the director, merging personal aspects of his life into the lads. “Several moments of my life were like that!” in Welsh’s eyes looking back at his youth. “It completely opened my eyes to an all-new sense of being and I think with that an imaginative creative experience was something that informs my whole life ever since. In terms of the music and culture, it has this DIY ethic which is something I have always really responded to. If you want to do something creative then just fucking get on with it – just do it! It is something I admire from that period.’’

“We also want this conversation about rave to not just be a throwaway party film. There is a socio-political moment here that we want to observe that in the film,” Hurley adds. “We were also aware of having a lot of Thatcher in British cinema. We are looking at this thinking what else is happening in 1994? What was happening was that [former Labour Party leader] John Smith died, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had those first meetings around making the internal party pact that would the basis of New Labour. That is the direction of travell the UK is on.’’

Focusing on the technical aspects of the final rave scene, an intimate experience is created due to Welsh’s collaboration with cinematographer Benjamin Kracun. When questioned on the practicalities of shooting the scene: “You just put on a real rave, you know! Most people were shocked, in terms of the film production people, particularly the older ones. When we asked how we were going to do this thing I was like ‘we are having a fucking party – a big party!’ Not just a party but the party! It has to be mega and needs to be a fucking riot. It is going to be one thousand five hundred people with real music and the party going to go on with us shooting around it. Most films try to shoot party scenes with a protocol whereby the music will play first, they will cut the music and all the extras will pretend to dance. The actors will do their lines and then you put the music in later. What we did was just playing the music, everybody danced, we never strike cut and we moved around the space. We recorded the sound there and used a lot of sounds.”

The ephemerality of raves, such as the one Johnny and Spanner experience in the film, are ultimately universal experiences. We have all danced the night away until the early hours with loved ones, in the process discovering melodic sounds and new people. Beats wondrously captures these tender moments in a compassionate cinematic manner. The end result is overwhelming, one that is hard not to be swept away by. For Kieran, ‘’You can place the film in a lineage of party movies about music scenes in recent British pop cultural history.’’ To me, its place in such a lineage feels apt. Bottling friendship and rave culture into the same mix is no easy task. Yet, balancing numerous tracks, the filmmakers combine these elements into one harmonious mix.

Beats is in UK cinemas now

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