It is a well-known but hard-to-remember fact that the Roland TR- 808 Rhythm Composer was only manufactured from 1980 to 1983. During this time, a scant 12,000 units were manufactured. From those, countless seminal records in every genre of music have been made. 808: The Movie tells its story through carefully chosen songs—a selection of which are included on the film’s soundtrack, available via Atlantic Records—and via interviews with almost 60 musicians, from Afrika Bambaataa to Pharrell Williams, the Beastie Boys to Phil Collins, Rick Rubin to Diplo, David Guetta to A-Trak. Producer Alex Noyer of You Know Films speaks about his cinematic ode to a drum machine.
The idea for the film came about over lunch with Arthur Baker?
Yes, we were discussing records, particularly the ones Arthur had produced, which quickly leads to the 808. Then we were talking about the sounds the machine created and how they were super hard to find. After mentioning a few iconic records, it really got into my music fanboy core. I’m not technical at all, but I am all about the records. When I went back to the office I mentioned it to Alexander Dunn and his eyes lit up, which rarely happens, and he stepped up to direct it. That was in 2011. The first shoot was March 2012 in Miami during Music Week with Jellybean Benitez and the last shoot was with the Beastie Boys in November 2014. It was three years by the time we hit SXSW and five years for its release via Apple Music.
The film flows smoothly; did you have a scripted narrative or did the chronology of the songs dictate that?
We had a list of songs and a set of questions. We couldn’t script the interviewees’ experiences so we took the risk of letting their stories guide our narrative. It turned the film into a gargantuan task since we carried out 57 interviews altogether. There is a chronology to the story, but we also jump around. Sometimes that’s due to the moment the tracks got heard or crossed over to certain countries, and sometimes it was about the way a track influenced another one at a different time. We couldn’t do it year by year, but at the same time, it couldn’t not be mindful of time, especially as the lifespan of the machine itself was very short.
How did you decide which artists and songs to include?
The simple answer is Arthur Baker. When he came on the project, he kindly offered his support in reaching out to talent. We decided to lead with “Planet Rock” and then kept an open mind. The songs picked themselves as we spoke with the artists, and some stood out for their recognized influence. We couldn’t get every artist we wanted; similarly, some tracks were impossible to clear, but the film had to be logical and work in 90 minutes.
There is a lot of amazing old footage in 808, but even the current footage has a vintage feel. You used the same sleeve graphic for every record you featured, which worked as a unifying aesthetic. What was the thought process behind these choices?
We applied VHS-style filters to blend it together better. The interviews are generally clean, but we still wanted make sure it felt like it was all authentic, not just the archives. We needed an identity for the film and [Dunn] brought up this great idea of re-imagining the vinyl, which I love. Also, artwork is hard to clear and sometimes there was no artwork so it was a great solution all around. The consistency definitely helps show the harmony in the 808’s reach and the various styles it influenced, and still influences. Also, it looks cool.
Your closing interview with Roland’s Ikutaro Kakehashi, the creator of the 808, puts a very different spin on the whole story. Did you consider focusing more on the perspective of the 808’s creation?
A lot of the fascination about the 808 is the perceived detachment between the company and how the machine ended up being used, as if it was never conceived to do what it did. A lot of artists feel they have a stake in the legacy of the 808 and the company stopped making the machine [the reason for which Mr. Kakehashi reveals during his interview]. We felt that his perspective was a great way to round out this artist-centric festival of experiences. There are so many more stories to tell about the 808, its genesis, as well as some of its lesser-known uses or the way the sound lives on in samples. We didn’t want to make an encyclopedia or an odd playlist. We wanted to deliver a curated love letter to the machine that we are all obsessed about.