In the lead up to writing this article, an email landed in my inbox imploring me to keep in mind that Vibrations is no ordinary movie, but might be in reality, “the greatest film in history.” Given the sheer volume of amazing programming that Network Awesome’s crack team of curators come up with, that type of sentiment gets expressed an awful lot around here. Still, it sets a certain expectation when you finally push the play button. Well, the fact of the matter, and the first of many spoilers contained herein, is that Vibrations is a fucking mess, missing the mark, formally, narratively and thematically, by a remarkably wide margin. Even as a devotee of trash cinema, I don’t usually go in for the whole “so-bad-it’s-good” thing, since, while we all know the pleasure of finding humor in staggering artistic failure, most classic “bad” films’ enduring appeal comes not just from rubbernecking at a cinematic train wreck, but also because they manage to capture something about the people who produced them or the time and place in which they were made. Vibrations’ depiction of the mid ‘90s rave scene is fascinating for anyone interested in that movement, not because it's keenly observed, informative, or even remotely accurate, but because it’s precisely the opposite. Truly and fully understanding a phenomenon like rave involves examining not only its timeless magnum opuses, but also those that, goddamn it, just really don’t get it, and in its crystallization of a half-baked, wildly misinformed view of an entire subculture, the film transcends its flaws to become a document that begins to justify superlatives like “greatest”.
Though it’s completely interesting from an anthropological perspective, Vibrations is a horribly made movie, even if it is entertainingly and hilariously so. Coming out in 1995, the film stars James Marshall (who you may remember for his much finer work playing James Hurley on Twin Peaks) as TJ Cray, an up-and-coming musician whose life is irrevocably altered after a group of drunken idiots run him off the road and crush his car with a piece of heavy machinery, severing his hands and putting an apparent end to a promising career. Despondent, TJ falls, seemingly overnight, into alcoholism and homelessness, despite the loving support of his police officer father and young girlfriend. Breaking into a building just to get off the streets and get some sleep, TJ awakes to find a rave in full swing, and forms an unlikely bond with the party’s idealistic promoter Anamika, played by Christina Applegate. With help from Anamika, and her amusingly one-dimensional friends, TJ regains the music he thought was forever lost to him, and finds a chance at justice for the wrongs he’s suffered. Unsure of what kind of movie it really wants to be, Vibrations ham-fistedly crams together broad comedy, revenge fantasy, and a lame attempt at a soul-stirring tale of loss and redemption, but the confusing tone is least of the film’s problems. The acting is uniformly terrible, though even Laurence Olivier would find it hard breathing life into characters so flimsy and dialogue so tin-eared. Even relatively simple things like set design are hopelessly bungled, with many of the interiors appearing as if they were left over from some ill-conceived, low budget sitcom pilot.
But what takes the film from ridiculous disaster to cult classic is the whole rave angle, which is so out of touch, so lacking in any real understanding, that you get the impression that writer-director Michael Paseornek, who tellingly stuck to producing after this auspicious debut, based his entire depiction of the scene on an article he once read in a doctor’s waiting room or something. The most glaring manifestation of this superficiality is the lingo the characters toss around so clumsily, all the “vibes” and “grooves” and whatnot. This reaches a mind-blowing crescendo when the goofball Simeon, one of Anamika’s cadre of rave scene cohorts, shows TJ his studio and, stepping up to his keyboard, gives a speech so ludicrously awesome that if it hasn’t been sampled into a million cheesy rave anthems by now, it should be immediately. I've taken the liberty of transcribing it here:
“The idea is to get the vibe going. Then you maintain the vibe with a trance inducing bass and the right lights. We’re primal, heading for cosmic, and just when you think we’re in galactic ecstasy, we go acid. It’s hardcore nutronic mutilation. Now we get serious. See, we’re going on a psychotically calibrated and electronically executed, digitally compressed, pus-excreting journey to sonic grooviness! The world is coming to an end, but we don’t care, because we’re moon-tan nocturnal, vinyl consuming animals drifting easy through friendly space. An analog trance, nothing can doom this groove; we’re controlling the vibe, manipulating the madness, sucking in the energy and we’ve cosmic nerving endings, telling us how to move, what to do, where to go and then we know, that it’s time to let go!”
If you’re somewhat knowledgeable about dance music, you have to chuckle, first at the utopian rhetoric, and second at the fact that when he talks about going acid, he adds a fat guitar riff into the mix and not a Roland TB-303, which speaks to a larger ignorance about techno and rave music, of how it’s made and consumed. The main players in electronic dance music have always been the producers who make the tracks and the DJs that spin them, so when TJ’s new friends build him a pair of robotic hands which he can preprogram to play just about anything on a keyboard, your first reaction, after wondering why they don’t share this lucrative invention with the world, of course, should be to ask why the computerized appendages are necessary at all when he can clearly already create tracks with his usual prosthetic? I mean, why not just press up some 12 inches? Incidentally, though it probably never occurred to the makers of Vibrations, you don’t need hands, or even arms, to rock a room, of which this bloke is living proof.
Empowered by his new cyborg powers, TJ finds his muse once again and quickly rises to fame performing as a Daft Punk-esque character called Cyber Storm. He plays raves which, with their prominent stages and bouncers searching people for drugs, look like the kind of sanitized, commercial events that would’ve made the old-schoolers complain about how much the scene has sold out.
But even if the events portrayed in Vibrations bear little resemblance to the actual rave movement, the film does manage to get a few things right, scoring some credibility points by featuring music, and a background appearance in one of the party scenes, by Fierce Ruling Diva, a Dutch duo responsible for such early 90s house sides as “You Gotta Believe” and “ Rubb It In”, which seems to indicate that the music director was the only person on the film with more than a passing interest in the actual substance of the scene.
Even at its most superficial, the film is at least superficially positive, hinting faintly at dance music’s power to transport and transform at a time when newspapers, especially in the UK, loved to paint rave as little more than a drug-soaked criminal enterprise, and at a time when even among the massive, the energy that once pushed practitioners to believe they were reinventing the future was fading. This generally rosy view of the movement sets the film somewhat apart from most hippie or punk exploitation films, from more anxious examples of mainstream cinema grasping at straws to make some kind of sense of an emerging subculture. Still, Vibrations displays the exact same fundamental dearth of insight toward rave that say, Wild in the Streets brought to bear on the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. Like the hippies or punk rock, rave was an immense cultural paradigm shift, a reimagining of music and of how we should strive to live our lives, and if you want to understand it, there is no shortage of cogent, detailed histories (Simon Reynolds Generation Ecstasy is a good place to start). But if you want to understand it well, you have to also factor in those outside, more mainstream perspectives, like Vibrations, whose fumbling attempts at cashing in also speak volumes about a culture in transition. Stupid, stupid volumes.