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The shiny “new” documentary 808 has lived a few lives, turning some interesting corners. Debuting this month, via Apple Music subscription or on iTunes, the film was actually made and run through the festival circuit for a couple of years before the full North American release. (It debuted at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival.)
If you have been aware of the project, you likely would have seen the trailer, but with the Atlantic Records logo, instead of the Beats 1 branding it currently sports.
Despite the delays, it’s a valuable piece of work, laying out the ongoing influence and impact of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Narrated by Beats 1’s DJ Zane Lowe, director Alexander Dunn guides you through its initial use, by Japanese electronic pioneers Yellow Band Orchestra, whose bouncy “Firecracker” landed them on Soul Train in 1980.
Competing with the more efficient Linn LM-1, the 808 has lasted via veracious use of its snares and the viciously deep kick drum, which holds a noticeable decay that sets the machine apart. (Roland Corporation founder Ikutaro Kakehashi explains the interestingly whimsical hows and whys throughout the film.)
Making zero bones about it, the film is about the music and the artistry first and foremost. It’s paced by playlist, and Dunn unleashes barrages of known (and unknown) firestarting classics.
A worldwide smash, Afrika Bambaataa and his Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock” would pitch the machine’s trajectory upward, setting off a string of classic 808-driven hits, including Shannon’s “Let The Music Play” (1983) and New Order’s “Confusion” (1983).
More notably, the machine spawned Marvin Gaye’s biggest commercial hit “Sexual Healing (1982) and its hilarious, corny video for which Viagra really should’ve been created for.
Interviewed and recently unretired, Phil Collins used the machine as a think tool, composing the memorable drum pattern of “In the Air Tonight” with its softer elements.
Following the life of the machine, you’re guided through an incredible tour—Kraftwerk, Beastie Boys, the Miami bass scene, and to even more forward-thinking artists like drum-and-bass legend Goldie. The film did miss some key history, most notably the lack of wider recognition for its significant use in rap music. Editing issues and Lowe’s overselling of what people already want drag the film, which at times feels more like a Roland TR-808 ad. Fortunately, it always comes back to the music, and the great interviews by legends and important figures who were probably forgotten.
And another great thing arose from 808’s release, a remix of “Planet Rock” by buzzworthy Montreal producer Kaytranada
Kahron Spearman is a music and film critic whose work can also regularly be regularly found in the Austin Chronicle.