Film Review (VIFF 2015) | 808

We like the Docs, the Docs that go Boom!


Rating 8.1/10

Running time: 107 mins.

Classification: None yet

Release Date: TBD

Country: United States

IMDB/Rotten Tomatoes

“808”, from Director Alexander Dunn, is a heartfelt look back at the genesis of an era in music history, based on one, tiny machine, that continues to reverberate today.  From LL Cool J, and The Beastie Boys, to contemporary DJ’s, producers, and musicians like Pharrell, and David Guetta, the 808 sound revolutionized an industry, and re-defined popular musical culture for generations.  If you grew up in the 80’s, or have listened to popular music in the last 30 years, the name TR-808 might not resonate, but it’s signature drum, bass, and snare kicks should strike a familiar chord:

Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force – “Planet Rock” (1982)

Starting life as just another musical product from Japanese musical instrument manufacturer, the Roland Corporation, the TR-808 was designed without a particular genre in mind, or any notion they were creating an instrument that would come to span generations of musicians around the world. Created by Mr. Nakamura and  Mr. Matsuoka, approximately 12,000 of the machines were manufactured between 1980, and 1983.  At a list of price of under $1200 it was considered a bargain at the time, especially compared to other similar devices, with its own distinctive sound, and deep bass kick.  Using a variety of analog circuits, including intentionally-chosen, faulty transistors, the machine had a raw, organic sound that 30 years later is still hard to replicate with modern, digital synthesizers.  Music afficionados continue to pay thousands of dollars for TR-808’s on auction-sites such as Ebay today, their value increasing year after year.

Afrika Bambaataa, a pioneer in 808-sound production, and the early days of hip-hop
Afrika Bambaataa, a pioneer in 808-sound production, and one of the forefathers of the early days of hip-hop

With little foresight that their machine would kickstart a 30+ year avalanche of musical innovation, the TR-808 was released in 1980 with little fanfare, seen by some as inferior at the time, because of its lack of digitally sampled sounds. The first group ever known to use the 808 was the Japanese electronic music group  Yellow Magic Orchestra, upon the machine’s release.  Back on American soil, and where this documentary kicks off, is with New York’s Afrika Bambaataa, and his revolutionary, hip-hop masterpiece, “Planet Rock”. Bought, sold, and traded, in record shops, and on the streets of New York, by the thousands, Bambaataa’s tracks set in motion a movement that would soon spread worldwide.


Sexual Healing” (1982) by Marvin Gaye.

Throughout it’s time, the TR-808 would go on to be used on seminal records of the period, ranging from a Marvin Gaye classic, to a 1982 Indian record that would pre-date much of the house, acid, and trance music that would surge to popularity decades later.

“Raga Bhairavi” from Charanjit Singh’s Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (1982).

The list of artists, and groups, who have used the TR-808 to shape, or in some cases completely define, their sound is endless, and this is the fertile ground that the documentary attempts to cover.  For anyone who grew up in the 80’s, the film represents a who’s who of musical notables, with interviews ranging from Phil Collins, to Rick Rubin, and Jimmy Jam.

Presented as an auditory history lesson, the film takes us on a chronological journey, from the development of the 808, and interviews with its creators, through to it’s modern-day relevance as a fixture of the music world.  We learn from industry luminaries that the presence of an 808 in any studio recording facility around the world today is a given, an astonishing legacy for a tiny Japanese drum machine made over 30 years ago.

Phil Collins, who used the 808 as the sole backing track on some of his most popular hits
Phil Collins, who used the 808 as the sole backing track on some of his most popular hits of the era.

At times the documentary bogs down with musical explorations of what feels like every track ever recorded with the 808, stopping to talk about the artists briefly before displaying a spinning graphic of their relevant single.  For the musical novice it can sometimes feel like overload, without a clear overriding point of view, serving as more of a sonic catalog, rather than a subjective documentary analysis.  However, as an archival map of the era, it’s a thorough, exhaustive portrait that never fails to entertain.

Let’s face it, how can you not smile at interviews with the creators behind 80’s 808-classics like “Cars that Go Boom”?

Lady Tigra, still going Boom.
Lady Tigra, still going Boom.

The film is nicely shot and produced, with interviews of almost all the relevant players in the music business appearing here.  There were two glaring omissions from the era, vital to the sound of the 808 spreading across the world, which were a shame not to see in person; the surviving members of Run DMC, along with LL Cool J.  Although mentioned numerous times by other artists, with their music seen and discussed prominently, they don’t appear in the film to speak of their experiences, which is an unfortunate miss.

The bottom line, however, is that if you grew up in the 80’s listening to hip-hop, or are a fan of contemporary musical history, this documentary belongs in your collection.  Although not as lavish, or tightly focused, as music docs in recent years like “It Might Get Loud”, or the excellent HBO series, “Sonic Highways”, it’s still a worthy complement to any music lover’s palette.  Much like the machine itself, “808” is a fun, quirky compilation of beats, with a few imperfections mixed into it’s musical arrangement, that provide it with it’s own distinctive flavor.

80's Nostalgia