'The Beat Beneath My Feet': Berlin Review

Sweet, but works a bit too hard to rally its toe-tapping spirit

A self-perceived high school loser and a fallen rock god provide the keys to each other's respective prisons in this British quasi-musical indie.

In The Beat Beneath My Feet, Luke Perry plays an American one-time grunge-band guitar virtuoso now stewing in reclusive depression in a South London council flat. Brit first-time director John Williams nudges this self-loathing hermit into a collision with a young singer-songwriter, crippled by performance anxiety, an over-protective mum and a loser complex fed by ostracizing high school bullies. The result is a formulaic youth-oriented empowerment-of-the-nerd fairytale, stuffed with enough music to give it modest appeal.

Along with original songs by Paul Cartledge, Geoff Jackson and Philip Jewson that explore the central character's inner life in both a naturalistic context and fantasy interludes, the film loads up on a mix of British and Irish indie music, much of it recorded live. Its chief asset, however, is the disarming performance of newcomer Nicholas Galitzine as Tom, who sings with an emo catch in his voice and loops of achy falsetto that sometimes resembles the vocals of Brit singer-songwriter Tom McRae.

Outfitted in regulation geek-wear of glasses and anorak, Tom gets habitually knocked around in the high school corridors, notably by obnoxious Damien (James Tarpey), whose group is planning to enter the upcoming Battle of the Bands contest. Tom has an unspoken crush on their pretty vocalist, Felix (Verity Pinter).

Tom's mother Mary (Lisa Dillon) loathes all things rock since his father (Ian Virgo), an arrested-adolescent musician, bailed on them, leaving her with scant means of support. He spends the occasional hour or two with Tom, but could never be described as a father figure. Forced to keep his musical aspirations secret from his mother, Tom performs for imaginary crowds of adoring fans in his bedroom or sings on the roof of their block.

Mary's anti-rock prejudices are confirmed when new neighbor Steve (Perry) moves in downstairs and starts blasting recorded guitar music at arena volume day and night. Replacing meet-cute with meet-angry, this is one of the more improbable plot points of producer Michael Mueller's screenplay. Given that Steve is living under a false identity, hiding out from a mountain of tax debt, he would hardly be so nonchalant about drawing attention to himself. But the film has a breezy way of blurring dreams and reality, so it's easy enough to overlook its more fanciful liberties.

Steve is actually Max Stone, a once-celebrated guitarist believed to be dead. Perry is a long way from the 90210 zip code but still wearing the same single furrowed-brow expression. His character's funk is conveyed by keeping him holed up in his dark apartment in a knit cap, overcoat and several days' worth of stubble.

Rock aficionado Tom recognizes him and forces Steve to give him guitar lessons in exchange for his silence. Their interactions are stiff at first, but Tom's genuine talent motivates Steve to take the task seriously, even buying him a Gibson when the kid's father lets him down.

Still unaware of their secret musical pact, Mary starts to change her mind about the "neighbor from hell," showing signs of attraction that unnerve Tom. And at school, Felix begins paying him attention. But in an attempt to impress her, Tom shares a phone video of him and Steve performing one of his songs on the roof, which gets into unscrupulous Damien's hands.

Most of the developments as the Battle of the Bands approaches are predictable. But while the characters' behavior isn't always consistent, there's plenty of conflict to keep the momentum humming. Tom's bruising experience with the betrayals of the local-level music world is presented as a microcosm of the double-dealing and ruthlessness of the legitimate industry that contributed, among more personal things, to Steve's burnout.

Few won't see what’s coming as Tom conquers his stage fright, gets a boost from Felix and Steve, and manages to make his mother soften her views. But half the film's charm is the plucky attitude it brings to a well-worn model.

Williams employs such devices as rudimentary hand-drawn animation, freeze frame and slow motion, at times somewhat randomly, but music is very definitely an essential part of his storytelling toolbox, which gives the movie energy even when it lacks finesse. Young audiences should respond to the theme of freeing yourself from self-doubt, peer cruelty or whatever else is holding you back.

Production company: Scoop Films

Cast: Luke Perry, Nicholas Galitzine, Lisa Dillon, Verity Pinter, Simon Lowe, James Tarpey, Ian Virgo, Ewen Macintosh

Director: John Williams

Screenwriter: Michael Mueller

Producers: Raj Sharma, Fiona Gillies, Michael Mueller

Executive producers: Puneet Gupta, Lynn Fordham

Director of photography: Sara Deane

Production designer: Alison Butler

Costume designer: Cecile van Dijk

Music: Paul Cartledge, Geoff Jackson, Philip Jewson

Editor: Thomas Goldser

Animation: Yu Sato

Casting: Sue Pocklington

Sales: Spotlight Pictures

No rating, 91 minutes.

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