10 great films about rave culture

Dig out your glowsticks and prep your whistle. On the eve of the release of Scottish rave pic Beats, we look at 10 great rave films that’ll get you reaching for the lasers and cutting shapes like your feet are on fire.

Oliver Lunn

Beats (2019)

Beats (2019)

Watching movies about raves is a strange experience. You either feel like the sober person eye-rolling at the goofy antics of friends, or you feel inspired to don a pair of wrap-around shades and pump your fists in the air as if to say yes, yes, yes to every beat. 

Either way, there are some great movies about this musical subculture that are sure to set your pulse racing. In all of them two things are guaranteed: a euphoric joyride and a wacky wardrobe  because when else is it socially acceptable to wear ski masks and chandelier hats indoors?

Unsurprisingly, given the rise and commercialisation of the scene, the few years on either side of the millennium proved an especially fruitful period for depictions of rave culture on the big screen. Some examined it with a critical eye, others simply looked to celebrate its hedonistic inclusiveness.

As Beats, a Scottish indie about illegal raves and friendship, hits UK cinemas, we’ve rounded up 10 of the great rave movies. 

WARNING: contains copious amounts of strobes.

Nowhere (1997)

Director Gregg Araki

Nowhere (1997)

Known in the 90s for his neon rave aesthetic, all eye-popping colours and day-glo threads, Gregg Araki delivered a trippy visual feast with Nowhere, the third part in his Teenage Apocalypse trilogy following Totally F***ed Up (1993) and The Doom Generation (1995). This bleakly funny movie follows a group of LA teens over 24 hours as they’re drawn inexorably to a party at the house of Jujyfruit, played by Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes. And what a party it is. Strobe lights, psychedelic projections, thumping house music. The drug-fuelled rave descends into a Lynchian nightmare, with visions of reptile-like aliens and blood-splattered walls. Nowhere is MTV on acid, a hallucinogenic ride through the mind of Gregg Araki.

Modulations: Cinema for the Ear (1998)

Director Iara Lee

Modulations: Cinema for the Ear (1998)

Dubbed ‘the definitive film on electronic music’, Modulations: Cinema for the Ear zeroes in on the music itself. What is the sound? How is it made? What does it do for people? Of course you see the wrap-around shades and bucket hats, but Iara Lee’s film is more concerned with the evolution of the music, peering into the nooks and crannies of the culture. “It’s all about mixing things to get new hybrids,” says one DJ, emphasising the experimentation. It also underscores the genre’s anti-establishment roots and how it grew from music lovers tired of the endless stream of guitar bands. This was a group of people who embraced modern technology with open arms, who embraced the modern age and its sounds. With a soundtrack including LFO, Rob & Goldie, and Coldcut, Modulations shows how ravers reach euphoric states through music  as well as other means.

Human Traffic (1999)

Director Justin Kerrigan

Human Traffic (1999)

Justin Kerrigan’s cult classic captures the ‘live for the weekend’ mantra of club-dwelling twentysomethings across the UK in the 90s. In it, a group of friends escape the mundanity of their day jobs when they mix club culture with a cocktail of drugs. They have one aim only: “To get absolutely trashed”. Kerrigan’s low budget movie, made when he was just 25 years old, shows little interest in critiquing the pilled-up adventures of his protagonists. Unfolding over the course of one wild weekend in Cardiff, it’s an uncomplicated coming-of-age tale that celebrates its drug-fuelled rave culture, pulling back the curtain on a non-stop party scene of clubs, pubs and house parties. It also happens to be the film debut of national treasure Danny Dyer.

Better Living Through Circuitry (1999)

Director Jon Reiss

Late nights and lasers abound in Better Living Through Circuitry, a documentary that looks at the 90s EDM movement. It details the new technology enabling artists to develop their beat-centred sounds, while underlining the DIY ethos of all involved. We hear from Moby, DJ Spooky, Genesis P-Orridge, as well as the ravers deep in the heart of the culture. “It’s an intensity that you can’t feel anywhere else,” explains one raver. With a soundtrack featuring Roni Size, The Crystal Method, LCD, and more, this doc is both inspiring and informative in its chronicling of the different branches EDM spawned, including drum and bass and trance.

Go (1999)

Director Doug Liman

Go (1999)

Like a transatlantic flip side to Human Traffic, Go centres on a group of twentysomethings who work crappy nine-to-fives and love weekend warehouse raves. Set over one night and filmed as a fragmented narrative from multiple perspectives (think Pulp Fiction), director Doug Liman captures an LA underworld of pistols, pills, and thrills, as things swiftly go south for the young ravers trying to palm off allergy tablets as ecstasy. Go is a freewheeling late-night trip, shot through with a stylistic overload that offers its own contact high. It’s a classic in-too-deep tale with a tagline that says it all: “A weekend wasted is never a wasted weekend.”

Groove (2000)

Director Greg Harrison

Groove (2000)

Just like Go, Groove is about one epic night. The party in this film  set in San Francisco’s underground rave scene  is going ahead despite a series of obstacles, including a police station just three blocks away. First comes the promotion: a single email about a rave in an abandoned warehouse before word spreads. Cue shots of pagers and old school AOL email accounts. Then the magical night itself  the euphoric dance music, the girls wearing swim goggles, the orange bomber jackets. Whether the feds break it up or not, this is going to be an all-nighter for the books, as guaranteed by the film’s poster: a smiley guy on the subway with a giant disco ball placed between his legs.

Sample People (2000)

Director Clinton Smith

Sample People (2000)

This cult curio, hailed as an Australian Pulp Fiction for the rave generation, stars Kylie Minogue and Ben Mendelsohn in early roles. Set over a wild weekend in Sydney, capturing “48 hours of clubs, chaos and kebabs”, as its tagline boasts, Sample People follows the intertwining lives of young Australians caught in a tangled web of guns, drugs and dodgy deals. The ultra low budget indie, directed by Clinton Smith, weaves multiple plot threads that eventually come together, as if it were Australia’s answer to Go. With bright red wigs, face glitter and bubblegum colours aplenty, the movie is a time capsule of the vibrant Aussie youth culture of the era.

24 Hour Party People (2002)

Director Michael Winterbottom

24 Hour Party People (2002)

“This is it: the birth of rave culture, the beautification of the beat,” says Steve Coogan playing Tony Wilson, the co-founder of the legendary Factory Records. He’s pointing out the applause that greets the DJ at The Hacienda, the birthplace of rave culture in the UK. In Michael Winterbottom’s dizzying ride through the Manchester scene, the director lays out what came before rave culture: Joy Division, New Order and the subsequent hybrid dance acts such as Happy Mondays that lit up the scene. The blissfully hedonistic early 90s era is neatly summed up in the scene where Bez (Chris Coghill) hops on stage with Happy Mondays for the first time, despite not officially being in the band. Frontman Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) invites him up simply because he “Adds to the vibe”.

Party Monster (2003)

Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato

Party Monster (2003)

“I’m not addicted to drugs, I’m addicted to glamour.” Party Monster is set in the dark heart of the NYC club scene of the early 90s, with Macaulay Culkin playing ‘king of the Club Kids’, Michael Alig. Based on the memoir Disco Bloodbath by James St. James, it charts the rise and fall of Alig, a former party promoter who was involved in the murder of another Club Kid in 1996. The movie is a nightmarish, never-ending party set in a world of candy colours, where fun-seeking ravers waltz into the New York night, chandeliers atop their heads, sunglasses on 24/7. It’s all about the spectacle, the flamboyance and the parties in the back of trucks. Think of it as a cautionary tale about partying just a little too hard.

Eden (2014)

Director Mia Hansen-Løve

Eden (2014)

When Daft Punk skyrocketed to global stardom in the late 90s, a spotlight shone on the French electronica scene. Eden  which is loosely based on director Mia Hansen-Løve’s brother’s life  follows a DJ who rode those coattails and built an audience in the US during the height of EDM. As much as it’s a fist-pumping celebration of that music, the film’s primary interest lies in how the DJ’s personal relationships are affected by his success, and how he copes mentally when his audience wanes. With heartbreaking clarity, Eden captures what it’s like to fall in love with EDM to the point where nothing else exists. Waking up one day in your thirties, your friends all around you having settled down with kids, while you’re still spinning wax into the wee small hours, a niggling thought lands in the back of your head: “What am I gonna do when this is all over? Can a guy really rave into his forties?”

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