A documentary celebration of the Roland TR-808 drum machine — arguably the most seminal individual instrument to come along since the Fender Stratocaster — Alexander Dunn’s “808” attempts to bolster the machine’s legacy with a mind-boggling degree of legwork and a mildly disappointing lack of finesse. Detailed to a fault, the film tackles an impressively wide range of genres, producers, rappers and DJs who fell under the machine’s spell, and even if some more clear-eyed editing would have done it a world of good, it’s nonetheless a consistently entertaining, instructive look at the unlikely heartbeat behind so much of the past three decades’ standout pop music.
Introduced in 1980, the 808 was never intended to be a studio-quality instrument, and as several of the film’s interviewees note, its sounds bore little resemblance to actual drums. It was not initially a strong seller either, but due to its relatively low price point (especially in secondhand shops after it was discontinued in 1983), it landed in the hands of enterprising young musicians, and its distinctive thudding kicks and harsh snares became indelible pieces of the sonic landscape thanks to Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”
Equally impactful on the burgeoning hip-hop and dance music movements, the 808 quickly became something like its own standalone instrument, one that proved immensely “hackable” by imaginative producers. Rick Rubin boosted the 808’s kick to obscene levels for T La Rock’s “It’s Yours,” helping to mint the speaker-shattering thump that still underlies much pop music today. The Miami bass scene (represented here by Mr. Mixx and L’Trimm’s Lady Tigra) refined it for even more extreme low-end worship, while techno and house also embraced the 808 as a weapon of choice.
In one of the film’s key anecdotes, Beastie Boy Adam (Ad-Rock) Horovitz recalls going to a New York pawn shop with plans to buy a Rickenbacker guitar, and leaving with an 808 instead, an almost too-perfect illustration of 1980s youth culture’s evolution from straight rock ‘n’ roll to more technologically adventurous styles.
And there are many such gems throughout. The ever epigrammatic Rubin philosophizes on the inimitability of the machine’s internal rhythm. Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee and British drum-and-bass artist Goldie both get so animated talking about the 808 that they seem on the verge of bursting a blood vessel. Phil Collins — a likably square presence amid the pic’s preponderance of jet-setting DJs — offers insights into the Zen-like benefits of writing songs with a drum machine instead of a live band. And a closing interview with octogenarian Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi even reveals a fascinating new secret about the 808’s internal hardware.
In other words, there’s a gold mine of material here for all manner of studio geeks, rap nerds and ravers. One just wishes director Dunn were better able to take his considerable homework and fashion it into something more graceful. Zane Lowe’s narration is overblown and dogmatic; early-‘80s-style visual effects are cute at first, but quickly grow repetitive. And perhaps most distracting, the film’s transitions between songs and scenes are weirdly inelegant, stopping and starting with the sorts of clumsy pauses that would never pass muster in a nightclub.
In its zeal to catalog every pivotal early use of the 808 — from Man Parrish to the S.O.S. Band and Cybotron — the film also gives the short shrift to more recent advocates. Presumably the filmmakers never managed to nail down Kanye West for an interview, but it’s odd that they never even mention his platinum-certified 2008 album with “808” in the title, which helped expose an entirely new generation to the machine.
All the same, it couldn’t have been easy to chase so many interview targets from New York to Finland to Tokyo, not to mention securing clearances for such a wide swath of music. There’s certainly no denying the level of enthusiasm that powers the film, and as the history of the 808 illustrates, enthusiasm trumps expertise every time.