'808': SXSW Review

808 SXSW Still - H 2015

808 SXSW Still - H 2015

A stylish history of a surprisingly influential electronic instrument

One drum machine to rule them all.

What do the Beastie Boys have in common with Phil Collins? Acid House with Crunk? It's a briefcase-sized electronic instrument called the Roland TR-808, whose hardly realistic imitation of percussion sounds became the bedrock of hip-hop and indispensible to other genres of pop music as well. First-time director Alexander Dunn tells the drum machine's story in 808, a stylishly presented and dance-friendly doc that is exactly the sort of thing SXSW's 24 Beats Per Second section was made for. Aspiring beatmakers and music geeks will eat it up.

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A quick intro foreshadows the introduction at the end of the film of Roland's Ikutaro Kakehashi, who helped create the device after promoting some extremely primitive rhythm machines for electronic organs. We learn that the 808's distinctive sizzling sound (and the reason it can't be put back into production despite massive popularity) is that Kakehashi used defective transistors that he could no longer obtain after his three-year production run.

But what a variety of sounds those castoff parts wound up making. A string of 808 pioneers and aficionados from Afrika Bambaataa to Damon Albarn drop in to describe how tweaking this setting and using that studio trick resulted in so many different dance floor sounds. The story is most delightful in the 1980s, when hip-hop milestones like "Planet Rock" wound up inspiring the sound of dance and R&B hits from "Let the Music Play" to "Sexual Healing." (Non-DJs in the audience will enjoy being introduced to more obscure singles like Man Parrish's "Hip Hop Be Bop" and Strafe's "Set It Off.")

Smart motion graphics introduce each new single being discussed while Dunn's camera glides along the buttons and knobs of his taciturn star from every possible angle. Midway through the film's shots of this control panel, one might wish the movie devoted a scene or two to a start-to-finish example of how beats are programmed — though it's possible most prospective viewers have already played with so many drum machines this would be old hat. For the rest of us, the sense of infinite possibility conveyed here inspires one to lust for a gizmo that, even after the introduction of vastly more sophisticated machines over the last several decades, now sells for thousands of dollars to would-be studio stars.

Production company: You Know Films

Director: Alexander Dunn

Screenwriters: Alexander Dunn, Luke Bainbridge

Producers: Alex Noyer, Alexander Dunn, Craig Kallman, Arthur Baker

Executive producer: Alex Noyer

Directors of photography: Claudio Rietti, Stuart Birchall

Editors: Alexander Dunn, Matthew Jarman, Stuart Birchall

Sales: Richard Abramowitz


No rating, 106 minutes