“It’s bizarre to me that we’ll be talking and I’ll ask what he’s up to and he’s, like, making a film about the Panama Papers with Meryl Streep, yet he’s reading this script about two lads from Cumbernauld going to a f***ing rave.”
It’s the last afternoon of the Glasgow Film Festival and Brain Welsh, director and co-writer of the festival’s closing night film, Beats, is reflecting on the strangeness of having Steven Soderbergh as both a mentor and an executive producer on what is essentially a low-budget immersion in the mid-1990s Scottish rave scene.
Not that it’s really all that incongruous that American cinema’s most mercurial and prolific filmmaker should take an interest in an up-and-coming Scottish filmmaker’s most personal movie to date. After all, Soderbergh has produced films in Scotland before and has a strong track record of identifying and supporting emerging talent, be it Christopher Nolan, Barry Jenkins or Avengers Endgame directors Joe and Anthony Russo.The man clearly has his finger on the pulse – and sometimes that pulse is racing at 120 BPM.
“He’d seen the episode of Black Mirror I’d directed and contacted me about it,” says Welsh, picking up the story of how they met. “At that time I was making The Rack Pack [his 2016 BBC movie about the rivalry between snooker legends Steve Davis and Alex Higgins] and it turns out he knew quite a bit about snooker in the 70s and 80s so asked if I could send him the film. And he really liked it. Then we started talking about what I was going to do next.”
Soderbergh had a project that wasn’t quite right for Welsh, but he promised he’d find something for him one day. Welsh, though, was having a bit of a career crisis and told Soderbergh about it. “There was a film that I knew that if I did what I wanted to do on it, it was just never going to happen, but there was a chance to make some money. And then there was Beats, which I’d poured my heart and soul into. He said, ‘Well, you’ve got to do that.’”
Welsh, though, told him it’d probably be a lot easier to get Beats off the ground with Soderbergh’s name attached. “So he said, ‘I’m your exec producer.’ And from then on, every draft, every cut, he was always around with some very small, precise, killer notes.”
It’s not hard to see why Welsh, who’s from Falkirk originally, but grew up in Aberdeen, might have struggled to get people to see the bigger picture without Soderbergh’s professional endorsement. Adapted from Kieran Hurley’s monologue-driven play of the same name, shot in monochrome, featuring a mostly unknown cast, and building towards an extended final act rave sequence that features almost no dialogue, Beats doesn’t exactly conform to the usual beats of British cinema.
True, its story about a pair of teens – the straight-laced Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and his bampot best pal Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) – embarking on a hedonistic journey of self-discovery over the course of a single night, does owe a lot to classic American coming-of-age movies such as American Graffiti, Dazed & Confused and Superbad. But to his credit, Welsh – who co-wrote the film with Hurley – has also made it very specific to what was going on in Britain in 1994. Not only does he submerge us in a subculture that American teens are only just starting to discover, he taps into the false optimism of New Labour at a time when that year’s Criminal Justice Bill – designed in part to outlaw raves with that infamous attempt to classify dance music as a series of “repetitive beats” — was starting to erode civil liberties that Tony Blair had no interest in protecting.
“The Criminal Justice Bill began a process that Blair was ideologically tuned into,” says Welsh, who weaves the future Prime Minister into the background of the film via televised speeches from the period. “I thought that was interesting: not the fag-end of Thatcher and Major, but that the Labour Party – New Labour – was peddling these ideas too. [Blair]
was very much a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Welsh describes himself as coming from a family of “hardened Labour supporters” who subsequently benefited from what he calls New Labour’s middle way. “My experience is much more like Johnno’s experience [in the film]. We moved to a nicer house and though we were still close to people we had ties with earlier on, we were a little divided. What I think about the film in terms of its inherent politics is that there’s an idea that these policies are trying to divide us, while at the same time, young people have this subconscious urge to gather en masse and have this communal experience, which is all about communicating honestly with people and dancing.”
In some respects that might also be why the music has not only endured, but has now arguably supplanted guitar-based rock music as the soundtrack for youth culture. “It’s the one musical genre that continues to engage with young audiences,” says Welsh. As a 13-year-old himself in 1994, Welsh discovered rave music the moment he started high school. When he was 15, he started going clubbing and saw the pioneering likes of JD Twitch (who does the music for the film) and Dave Clarke at the Pelican in Aberdeen – a “dark, sweaty, lawless basement” he frequented on weekends and school nights alike. “Kids have continued to go to these parties and clubs,” he says. “Dave Clarke continues to play to a crowd that’s the same age as the crowds he used to play to when I was a kid. And the music has not evolved all that much. I’ve heard a theory that’s because the individual brings themselves to the music, so it almost becomes a performance in itself. It’s not about the worship of some iconic rockstar.”
Beats is in cinemas now.