Seen as a basic setup with just 16 onboard sounds, Roland’s TR-808 drum machine was also a rare piece of ‘80s machinery that had personality to spare. An all-analog programmable design meant beats were created on the spot rather than spit out through canned samples, each song built on it distinguished by otherworldly bass, handclaps, and conga drum hits. More importantly however, it housed an impossibly deep kick drum that altered music production instantly and — as related in director Alex Dunn’s documentary “808” — blew up a few sound systems as well.
Logically, Dunn’s film is also one suited to the highest quality audio experience possible. Though visualized through crisply designed drum charts, and dolly moves up on circuitry, Dunn’s effort could fly on an iPhone screen as long as some attached headphones pull their low-end weight. The film aims to hone in on and amplify the 808’s “personality,” logging through archival footage and a Zane Lowe voiceover to chronicle the machine’s impact, from its origins in Japan to its status as a worldwide staple of hip-hop and pop. Gradually we as an audience hear the differences: some are subtle, while others — like Felix da Housecat’s song “Kickdrum” — take a concussive elbow to the senses with the shift immediately.
With this structure the film sometimes feels like a particularly curated YouTube wormhole. It’s a friend handing you headphones and telling you, “Listen to this,” only boasting the likes of Questlove, Rick Rubin, Beastie Boys, and others behind the choices. Through in-studio interviews, Dunn gathers over 50 titans and up-and-comers to wax poetic on the 808. That lineup is key, as not only are they well-versed in the 808’s features, but they also have a strong selection of tunes to their names that utilize it in various ways.
From Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and Public Enemy’s “Yo! Bum Rush The Show,” to Phil Collins’ “Another Day In Paradise” and onward, Dunn explores signature examples in, yes, an extremely episodic fashion, but an enjoyable one too. At the film’s peak he finds moments that nail a vibe of tech wizardry and lighthearted banter: in one of its funniest scenes, Ad Rock and Mike D from Beastie Boys bring up the backwards drum loop on “Paul Revere,” and then proceed to bicker at length about exactly how they achieved it technically.
At moments like this, you realize the infinite mechanical avenues that Dunn could have explored, but rather than isolate audiences he cuts that aspect down to deliver a breezy, fun overview — a celebration more than an investigation. There are some surprises, too: the Belgian duo Soulwax claim that they bought secondhand the same machine that recorded Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” and they bring in their unit to find out. And while we always knew Questlove to speak eloquently on the detailed facets of music history and production, it is another pleasure entirely to see Lil’ Jon tackle his song “What U Gon’ Do,” and offer some real insight and knowledge into his process.
While Dunn hops from country to country, decade to decade, in search of the 808’s influence, you won’t find a trace of stakes to any of it: if you expect tales of a founder, Roland’s Ikutaro Kakehashi, trying to find success and “failing” (Roland viewed the 808 as a commercial disaster), or musicians fighting to get their newfound visions heard, the film won’t meet you halfway. The mood is never anything but idolatrous, and — as music docs tend to do — it falls into overlong repetition from too many soundbites stating how the game was changed. Dunn takes his film’s title explicitly, and it is a pleasant but somewhat detached effort as a result. Despite having “character,” the character is still a basic piece of machinery, and “808” works best as an insightful, focused work when we hear from the people who developed new ideas and careers because of it. [B-]