Melbourne International Film Festival Review: 808 (UK, 2015)

Alexander Dunn’s expositional documentary 808 takes its name from the Roland TR-808, one of the first programmable drum machines. Originally manufactured in early 1980 for studio musicians to record demos, the 808 was criticized for its unrealistic drum sound and was likened to the sound of marching ants. However, the snappy, tinny sound of the 808 found its home with emerging, innovative DJs and producers who would come to use, hack and transform the unique beat of the 808 and ultimately shape it into the sound of Hip Hop we know it today.

Manufactured in Japan by Ikutaro Kakehashi, who also features in the documentary, the 808 relied on defective circuits for its unique sound, however due to the improvement of the required defective parts, the 808 saw a very limited manufacturing time and so in 1983 the product was rendered obsolete. In this way, the 808 found its way into 2nd hand stores and as a result into the hands of emerging artists such as Kevin Donovan who would go on to be better known as Afrika Bambaataa, “The Godfather” of electro funk, the genre-bending sound that would define early Hip Hop.  

Co produced by DJ musician Arthur Baker, who is best known for his work with several pioneers of the Hip Hop movement such as Afrika Bambaataa, Planet Patrol and New Order, 808 confidently boasts interviews with these legends. In this way, the documentary impressively tracks down founding fathers and musicians who have built on the movement as they reminisce about their personal and respective discoveries of the 808. This is undoubtedly the most interesting part of the film as it deals with the emergence of new technologies and the exploration of unknown sounds and drum beats. It was completely unusual to have a drummer sustain a high bpm (beats per minute) and so the constant rapid beat in many ways liberated musical interpretation. This evolution of the sound eventually saw its transformation into genres such as Trap, Drum and Bass and Electro, to name a few.

The sheer number and diversity of musicians influenced by the 808 is definitely touched on in this doco as interviews with Goldie, The Beastie Boys and Phil Collins offer points of contrast in regards to how they interacted with the beats. Pharrell and David Guetta also make the mix, however their interviews are not as personalised, in depth or as knowledgeable as the others. This is unfortunately where 808 loses its beat, the documentary becomes a little bit too diluted as it tries to inject modern relevance too quickly. Italy, France, Japan and India are all briefly touched on as having their own melting pot of sounds and interpretations however the 808 stays primarily States bound within the documentary. As well as this, the interviews become repetitive and accompanying motion graphics are clunky and do not sustain interest. The documentary could do with another edit with the last section feeling like a 30min wrap up.

All in all, 808 watches like a super in depth detailed playlist which is not necessarily a bad thing. It takes you through the first heard sound of the 808 with the Yellow Submarine Orchestra and follows the beat through a diverse range of interviews, songs and chart toppers all the way to artists such as Usher. It is definitely a film that lovers of Hip Hop or any of the side genres should go see. 808 is an exciting and dynamic exploration into the evolution of music and the experience of pioneers who embraced unusual sounds, challenged public expectations and in doing so created an entire industry off the back of a defective circuit that sounded like marching ants. Pretty impressive stuff.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

808 screens again at the Melbourne International Film Festival tonight! For tickets and details head here: http://miff.com.au/program/film/808