“This is Chicago. Both my brothers are dead and I’m standing here.”
With music-centered drama films like Step Up (2006) and High School Musical (2006) once at the heart of everyone’s emotional and financial investment, I had low expectations when Netflix’s Beats graced the screen.
Chris Robinson’s 2019 American drama presents August (Khalil Everage), a gifted teen producer debilitated by PTSD, who finds himself grappling with his fear of the outside world. When Romelo (Anthony Anderson), a manager has-been, stumbles into the boy’s life and trips over his beats, the walls protecting August come crashing down – subjecting him to both exhilarating possibilities, and the uncensored disfigurement of human empathy.
The film does an exceptional job capturing the external struggle of F. Gary Gray’s 2015 Straight Outta Compton, and then internalising it. The world within the story is slimmed down to a few individuals, whose inner turmoil is conveyed through musical notes that flow and hiccup before bursting with vibrancy, thanks to Joshua Reis’ unique cinematography. In fact, the soundtrack, composed by Chicago-based artists, plays a character in itself.
Instead of constricting itself to hip-hop and rap, the film’s melody incorporates notes of jazz, echoeing the film noir style of suspense-building, as evidenced by Billy Wider’s Double Indemnity (1944). As a matter of fact, the film’s few smokey Dutch angles reinforce the classic genre’s elusive aura. This technique discloses the characters’ emotional backdrop without stripping the screen of colour. The end result is complete emotional immersion.
All the film’s elements come together to address the harsh reality of August’s psychiatric disorder, using it as a tool to expose the insensitivity with which we sustain harsh, damaging environments, especially in certain neighbourhoods. So as intimate as the plot may seem on the surface, its resonance is profound. It scrapes against themes such as: gun violence, mental health, poverty and betrayal.
As times grow dire, embracing them is vital for any hope of progress. Especially now, taking into account recent events in America, where your skin colour can be as damning as it is natural.