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Raves, the Celluloid Rage

Is the underground youth culture starting to go mainstream? Three films on the subject are in or heading to theaters, and the music and attitude are showing up elsewhere on the pop landscape.


Jon Reiss had never been to a rave when he started work on "Better Living Through Circuitry," his documentary on the underground youth phenomenon that opens later this month.

A director of music videos for groups such as Nine Inch Nails, Reiss knew nothing about techno music or the all-night dance happenings called raves. But his friend Brian McNelis, general manager of Cleopatra Records, wanted to make a rave movie, and Reiss agreed to accompany him to a music conference in Miami.

To check out the scene, they visited a dance club one night, video camera in hand, and Reiss was not impressed. "It was a really bad deejay in a bad club," he recalls. "I looked at Brian and said, 'This is it?' "

But on the second night, when they left the conference-sponsored events to attend a real rave featuring the group Rabbit in the Moon, Reiss was hooked. "It was just amazing," he says. "I hadn't had an experience like that at a musical event in years."

McNelis concurs: "We used no drugs, no alcohol--we were working. But at the same time you just felt like you were going to explode from the euphoria."

The documentary that Reiss, producers McNelis and Stuart Swezy spent the next two years making became their way of exploring why the music and atmosphere had affected them so. Filled with footage from raves across the country and interviews with ravers, deejays and organizers, "Better Living Through Circuitry" is a music-drenched primer on a youth craze that probably can no longer be considered underground, given the attention it's starting to get from the mainstream.

Three rave movies currently are in or on the way to theaters. "Human Traffic," a hip comedic love story from England about one high-octane weekend in the lives of young ravers, opened Friday. "Circuitry" opens May 26, three weeks before the June 16 opening of "Groove," a dance-, drug- and sex-driven story in which nearly all of the action takes place during an illegal Los Angeles rave.

The music and attitude on display in these movies has been showing up in mainstream films and advertising for a while--last year's "Go," is one noteworthy example. But raves aren't just the setting for the current trio of films--the joyous and often illegal happenings, which often take place in the countryside or in abandoned warehouses, are front and center.

Besides exuberance and, of course, the music, all three movies seem to share a conviction on the part of their makers that they are introducing an important and mostly misunderstood youth culture to the public at large.

Though aging beatniks, hippies and punk rockers might beg to differ, Justin Kerrigan, the 25-year-old writer-director of "Human Traffic," calls it "the most significant youth culture in history." He bases the claim not only on its size and longevity--it's been around more than 10 years and shows no sign of decline--but also on the force of society's reaction against it.

In order to control raves, which sometimes attracted more than 100,000 people to the countrysides of England, communities in the country forced them into clubs by making it "illegal for more than 10 people to dance to a repetitive beat in an outside space," he says.

Drugs as a Key to the Experience

It seems like only yesterday that movies were squeamish about portraying drug use--scenes of pot smoking drew scornful comment from blow-in-the-wind reviewers who shortly before had seen nothing wrong with it. This was during Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign, when bucking the trend toward on-screen sobriety seemed almost unpatriotic.

But if the collected works of Quentin Tarantino, Ice Cube's "Friday" movies, "American Beauty" and any number of other films don't provide enough evidence that times have changed, the arrival of these rave movies certainly will. The taking of drugs--ecstasy is the chemical of choice--seems an essential part of the rave experience. Even the names of some of some of the biggest groups intentionally refer to drugs: Crystal Method, for example.

With their talk of peace, love and understanding, and talk of mind expansion through use of drugs, the ravers seem to resemble the youth culture of the '60s, but, as McNelis notes, "They have the comfort of 20-plus years of history to know what that scene was about and to see some of the failings of it."

The kids who flock to raves have no political agenda, he says. They aren't trying to push anything on anyone. "It's an underground culture," he says. "If you want to go there, you've got to find it."

"Groove" begins with a cross-section of Southern California twentysomethings receiving notification, via e-mail, of where to go to receive directions to the rave. As the characters, who hail from all walks of life, make plans to attend, the organizers set to work preparing the abandoned warehouse for the all-night party.

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