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Netflix’s Beats samples too many songs to find a coherent beat

I lost my patience about halfway through Beats. There’s plenty to like about the musical drama, out now on Netflix, including charming performances from most of the cast and inventive flourishes from director Chris Robinson (ATL), but none of it is enough to counterbalance the film’s flaws. Namely, a clunky script (by Miles Orion Feldsott, an executive producer on Deadly Class) that tries to do too many things at once, and ends up doing none of them well.

After the murder of his sister Kari (Megan Sousa), August (Khalil Everage) has become a recluse, dealing with PTSD and agoraphobia by remaining in his mother’s (Uzo Aduba) apartment — if not solely in his room — and throwing himself into producing music. Things start to change when Romelo (Anthony Anderson), the security guard at his school, drops by the house to try to get him to attend again. A former manager, he knows a good beat when he hears one, and he knows that August has potential.

A hapless-looking Romelo (Anderson).
A hapless-looking Romelo (Anderson).

Already, there are two stories competing. The first is August’s, as he reluctantly begins reacquainting himself with the outside world, growing closer to an old crush through the music he writes for her. Then there’s Romelo, who’s fall from grace has to do with his shady handling of a past client. He sees August as his chance to get back into the music world, and back in the good graces of his wife (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who heads the school.

The shift of focus to Romelo feels like the intrusion of an entirely other movie, as if August was added or expanded after it became clear that the film needed something a little more original or, more damningly, a more likable lead. Romelo isn’t particularly sympathetic (in fact, he’s relentlessly self-serving), and his tactic of sneaking into August’s apartment when August’s mother isn’t around in order to gain continued access is a bad one. Characters in the film point all of these things out, but that’s about the extent of it. Romelo doesn’t really change, which renders the criticisms moot.

That the music is forgettable doesn’t help, particularly when the music August is making is supposed to be the next big thing. The only memorable moments come courtesy of Dreezy, the “Princess of Chicago Rap,” who briefly appears in the film as an up-and-coming artist named Queen Cabrini. For how important August’s talent is to the advancement of his story, the tracks feel tossed off at best. Again, Beats is more interested in Romelo’s comparatively grittier arc.

The rapper Dreezy as Queen Cabrini.
The rapper Dreezy as Queen Cabrini.

Shootings and gang violence in Chicago, as well as police brutality, are also sprinkled throughout the film in a way that fails to properly address either. Their inclusion feels meant to shock more than anything else, or otherwise be used as shorthand for Beats being a film to be taken seriously. Even August’s PTSD is flimsily dealt with; he initially has a panic attack just seeing Romelo, but by the next time they meet, has no real problem letting him into the apartment. His unwillingness and inability to go outside are similarly easily resolved despite how crippling they’re made out to seem at the beginning of the film.

That breezy handling of heavy material makes the film’s almost two-hour runtime feel like a slog, especially as it becomes clear that none of what happens will come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s seen a single movie. Unsurprisingly, the performances of the cast get swallowed up in the mire — Everage is good, but August is made increasingly passive, and Sousa, the film’s other standout, is gone too soon.

Robinson’s direction fares a little better, as he puts a spin on familiar scenes to make them feel fresh — the world fades into colors à la Ratatouille around August when he’s making music, there are physical manifestations of his memories of his late sister, and his disorientation when he goes outside shakes the whole screen — but those touches aren’t consistent. There’s no saving just how haphazard the film is.

Beats feels like a Trojan horse. It wants to be a story about a young man overcoming adversity, it wants to be a story about a man getting a second chance at life, it wants to be a story about music, it wants to be a story about gang violence in Chicago. It can’t be all of these things at once, so it settles for trying to crib little bits and pieces of each and Frankensteining them together, presenting one storyline while trying to slip the others in underneath. Beats just fails to find a groove.

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