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On the empty streets of Chicago’s South Side, two teens walk home. A gun fires. Blood floods on the concrete, ears are ringing, and one of the young people finds themselves looking into the other’s lifeless eyes. It fades to black before a catchy tune quickly storms in to contradict the moment, and then we pop back into the action over a year later, as clearly-marked Beats branded headphones are flashed on screen in a movie called… well, Beats. I’d say that’s an off-putting start, wouldn’t you? Fortunately, it's just an overly rocky opening for a movie that is ultimately just average.
In the film, newcomer Khalil Everage plays August, an agoraphobic teen who has refused to leave his house and go to school ever since the shooting of his sister. Instead, he spends hours creating beats on his drum machine in his room. It starts as a distracting hobby, but things change when a security guard from his high school, Romelo Reese (Anthony Anderson), listens in on his beats and, being a former music manager, makes it his priority to help bring August success in the hip-hop scene.
Beats is the second feature film to be helmed by experienced music video director Chris Robinson, who previously made 2006's ATL, and has crafted pieces inspired by the music of Alicia Keys, T.I., Lil Wayne and Prince. And while he doesn’t succeed in making the drum machine prodigy film particularly cinematic, especially when it comes to August doing his thing, the story being told does push some emotional buttons that will deeply affect audiences.
As the story expands, the drama goes inside the home life of August and his mother (Uzo Aduba) as they deal with their shared loss - and it's regularly intriguing and devastating. Everage offers up a standout performance in his first leading role that is unquestionably the highlight of the film. Aduba isn’t utilized enough, but speaks volumes with her character in a few key moments.
Their fear following the shooting is shown in ways not often depicted in movies, and Beats deserves praise for these choices. However, the film plays to two different tunes that don't always sync well together: a poignant drama showcasing the effects of teen gun violence on a family, and a “light” inspirational mentor-prodigy film about following your dreams amidst struggles.
Anthony Anderson does take an interesting career turn with his turn as Romelo, playing a less-than-likable, washed up manager who holds on to his belief in August’s talent above all else. The actor's comedic background helps inject some memorable chemistry into the film between , however, many of the character's motivations feel like they're coming out of left field and are not grounded in the established reality.
It falters in blending these two tones seamlessly and its premise is perhaps too ambitious for its scale. There are a number of plot points that just don’t need to be there. The Netflix release is ten minutes shy of two hours and it drags due to this misdirection.
Beats has a few especially beautifully shot scenes that give the film depth and texture. The soundtrack is full of cool jazz music… but in a movie about the hip-hop scene of Chicago? I’d expect more influence of the music that the movie seeks to celebrate.
What’s disappointing is the film certainly had the potential to work better than it does, but most of the scenes between August and his mentor just don’t do any favors to Beats’ emotional core. The work they are making together doesn’t feel connected to his tragedy. August creates joyous and energetic club music as his performance largely reflects that he is a sad prisoner confined to his bedroom.
This unfortunately creates a rift within the movie and hampers its potential to elegantly inject emotion into the music. This ‘club music’ doesn’t affect us as much as the story thinks it does. He does not possess a unique flair to his music stylings that will dazzle the audience enough to make us think, he needs to be famous and successful. The movie tells us August is a genius, but it doesn't actually let you buy into that notion.
Between its discussion of gun violence and making it in music, Beats is an entertaining watch that is most effective in sharing its message about how poisonous fear can be - but it's also scattered in the execution of its vision.