Make Some Noise: Dance Music and Activism in 120 BPM

Writer and DJ alumnus of Manchester's famous Hacienda, Dave Haslam lived and breathed the global dance music scene of the late '80s and the early '90s. Dance music created a scene, a lifestyle and was a pillar of a community, and it played a significant part in the story of early AIDS activism and in particular the work of ACT UP-Paris. Haslam explains the social relevance of the dance music scene, as depicted so vibrantly in Robin Campillo's award-winning 120 BPM (Beats Per MInute)

Two thirds of the way through the film we're in a dance club hearing Jimmy Somerville singing the first lines of a housed-up version of Bronski Beat's ‘Smalltown Boy’ (the remix is by Arnaud Rebotini, who scores most of the music in the film). It's an epic moment. And I'm going to try to explain why it works so well and means so much.

There’s a very direct, historical connection between AIDS activism in Paris and house music, as we shall see; one of the co-founders of ACT UP-Paris was a dance music aficionado. As well as having historical authenticity, the club scenes in the film make an emotional impact too.

Throughout the film, these scenes are a valuable counterpoint to the ACT UP meetings. At the meetings ACT-UP’s aims are defined and debated, actions plotted, passionate words spoken, tensions exposed.

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On the dancefloor, however, there are no words, and no tensions. On the dancefloor, the characters are living life, and lost in music.

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Rebotini’s soundtrack captures the warmth and euphoria, but also the unsettling sense of yearning in the music of house music in the early 1990s. There’s still an air of melancholy somewhere amongst the bodies moving through the darkness.

The gay community have always found an escape, a focus, and solidarity in nightlife. I remember the gay clubs in Manchester up until the late 1980s, mostly hidden away as they had always been, in basements down unlit streets, or under railways arches on the edge of town. 

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I also remember the change when acid house and techno music, married to the new club drug ecstasy, created a little sense of communal utopia in clubs of all kinds in the city. In this fertile atmosphere, the gay community became visible, and acknowledged. In 1990, on Canal Street in Manchester, Manto the first of a new generation of gay bars opened. It was sited directly on the street, glass fronted, out and proud. 

Over in France, Didier Lestrade, working as a music journalist at Liberation and Gai Pied in 1987 and 1988, was one the first French people to pick up on early house, championing the new wave of club music hitting the gay clubs in Paris. Pioneering house DJ Laurent Garnier found his most enthusiastic audiences on Friday nights at the legendary gay club Le Queen, and at Le Palace at the “Gay Tea Dance” on Sunday afternoons.

In France at the time, though, the AIDS epidemic was more grave than here. The country had twice as many cases of AIDS than the UK. President Mitterrand’s government was swerving all responsibility. The AIDS issue had no kind of political priority or visibility.

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This is when dance music and AIDS activism in France became connected in a very direct way; house music journalist/enthusiast Didier Lestrade decided radical action was required, and co-founded ACT UP-Paris in 1989. In his writings, he later reflected on how house music and ecstasy had made an impact at a time when the homosexual community was attacked full force by AIDS. “This is no coincidence. House music liberated gays who were alienated by illness”.

Some of the early users of ecstasy dubbed it “the hug drug”. One of the features of the scene globally was the way the scene drew people together, creating ad-hoc communities. In ‘Smalltown Boy’ that’s a life’s quest; to feel at home in an alternative family.

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Hearing ‘Smalltown Boy’ in the film generates an emotional moment, a deep mix of both sadness and bliss. Released in 1984, its presence in a contemporary film, is like seeing the story through a long lens, through four decades of lost moments, lost comrades. And four decades of temporary victories. Like a dance music addict, activism never sleeps. Turn the music up. Make some noise. Silence = death.

[Dave Haslam is a DJ and author of numerous books and articles, with a particular focus on the diverse music scenes of Manchester, England. His writing credits include NME, The Guardian, The Face, The New Statesman and The London Review of Books. For more information about Dave, visit his website]

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)

The lives of AIDS activists in early '90s Paris are reimagined in bold and vivid detail in 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute), a stunning and heart-wrenching drama from the writer of Palme d’Or winner The Class, Robin Campillo. Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes 2017 and a host of international awards, this is an essential work of cinema with a profoundly moving and delicately crafted love story at its heart.

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) arrives in cinemas and on demand Friday 6 April.