When house music declared itself the modern counterpart to disco in the 1980s and 1990s, it also showed just how important the ‘beats per minute’ in a piece of music can be. 120bpm is – if you believe the medics – aligned to the natural tempo of the human heart, and so it makes sense for some of the best electronic music to be synced up to the body in this way.
120bpm, or in this case 120 battements par minute, is also a recent film telling the powerful story of Act Up, a group of Aids activists headed by Didier Lestrade. Their battle to bring the epidemic to the attention of those in authority was a crucial feature of the LGBT political landscape, and took place in the face of serious opposition. In the film this is complemented by the stories of the individuals involved, which of course link very closely to the music being played in the clubs at the time.
House music was the order of the day, a fresh faced form where producers were still having a lot of fun with analogue instruments. Rather than cast their eyes back for a soundtrack of classic tracks of the day, the filmmakers employed Arnaud Rebotini to come up with his own new takes on the ‘old’ genre. Rebotini clearly has expertise with analogue instruments, and if you’ve not listened to his 2008 album Music Components, its cover adorned with the hardware of his studio, you will get an idea of his prowess as a techno artist.
120bpm, though, goes much further, recapturing a scene through skillful writing that goes far beyond pastiche. Central to the film’s impact is an updated remix of Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, a brave and brilliantly done piece of work which is affectionately rescored with some sharpened edges but in a way that protects Jimmy Somerville’s vocals and the melting heart of the song.
This high quality and fully authentic approach runs through Rebotini’s original music too. Surging strings elevate Sean & Nathan la nuit well beyond the level of a classy nocturnal track, which it was already building up to be. Here Rebotini fully captures the starry-eyed magic of early house music, where the corners are refreshingly rough and the pianos and strings sound analogue and alive rather than too processed. This track has warm keyboards and a smoky exterior, as does Premier Club, which cuts to a Chicago-style piece of piano-led house, making use of beautifully mottled parts for clarinet, cello and harp.
The shorter interludes on the soundtrack are surprisingly affecting as they tell the story. The cloud that blows over with the appearance of Le Scanner leaves a lasting shadow, as does the mournful clarinet solo in Meltonpharm. Meanwhile a clever piece of piano playing brings extra poignancy to Jeremie est mort du side, adopting the profile of a house riff in every sense but keeping the rhythm respectfully to one side.
It is no surprise to find that Rebotini’s work has led to a César film festival award for Best Original Soundtrack, one which he typically dedicated to the heroes of Act Up and their legacy. A pure illustration, if it were needed, of his commitment to the cause – which has yielded this rather wonderful piece of work, matching misty eyed classic house beats with music that completely matches the events and emotions of the time.