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Why Human Traffic is still the best movie about dance music ever made

I didn’t see Human Traffic until last year, which is a bit strange because it’s very much of my generation and relevant to my interests. It came out in 1999, when I was still in my twenties and living the life that it depicts so accurately. Most dance music fans I know, whether my age or younger, regard it as an all-timer and can quote entire passages from it. For whatever reason I’d missed out.

Sometimes cult classics fall flat when you try and catch up with them years late. For the first few minutes of my initial viewing of Human Traffic, I feared this would be the case. It definitely took me a few scenes to adjust to its manic, off-the-wall groove. But I soon got into it and saw exactly why so many others find it so special – and recognised many of my own misadventures in its refreshingly honest take on the life of party people. This was confirmed watching it again recently.

“A couple of famous faces pop up, including a memorable cameo by none other than Carl Cox”

If you’re behind like I was: Human Traffic follows the adventures of Jip (John Simm) and his four best mates over one hectic night of partying on a Friday night in Cardiff. The ensemble cast is made up of relative unknowns, and that’s one of the film’s strengths – but a couple of famous faces pop up, including a memorable cameo by none other than Carl Cox, putting on a hilariously out-of-character grimace as a shady club owner.

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It’s interesting to be writing about Human Traffic one week after covering Trainspotting in this space. Human Traffic obviously owes a debt to the latter, especially for its frankness in exploring drug culture, but also its gonzo humour and fantasy sequences.

It touches on some of the same issues of British working-class frustration and youth alienation, and the resulting hedonism and nihilism; though with a warmer and cheekier approach. It’s not as profound or disturbing as Trainspotting, and it doesn’t aim to be, but it reminds you that whether in Edinburgh or Cardiff, kids all over the UK in that era were facing the same problems and letting off steam in similar ways.

“The characters could be friends of yours”

Human Traffic is rough around the edges in parts; there’s some dodgy acting and dialogue. But that also works in its favour; those same qualities characterise many classic punk-rock and “hood” films, and other indie films that explore subcultures and marginalised communities. Its roughness makes it unpretentious, relatable and even thrilling. The characters could be friends of yours. Their affection for each other, their frustrations, their sexual tensions, seem real and genuine.

The relative lack of Hollywood slickness also allows for plenty of working-class grittiness, such as Jip’s disappointment in his mother, who scrapes out a living as a casual sex worker; and his mate Koop’s devotion to his mentally-ill father. The grinding fact of wage slavery and unemployment is an important theme – it’s the grim daytime reality that the characters seek to escape in the nocturnal club world.

Most importantly, the exhilaration the characters find in music and clubbing feels utterly unforced and authentic – their excitement as they’re getting dressed, ringing each other on the phone and sorting each other out with tickets and gear on Friday evening is palpable and joyous.

The climactic club scenes are not always realistic (it’s so hard to get that right on film), but they do a good job of at least simulating the excitement and energy of the dancefloor. These scenes primarily feature the progressive sound that dominated main rooms at the turn of the century but elsewhere the film makes use of some pure classics, most famously Orbital’s Belfast at its most melancholy moment. (The wall-to-wall music was overseen by Pete Tong and features original score by Matthew Herbert.)

Though Human Traffic is well-known for its many wild dream sequences – such as one in which a professor explains the dangers of using ecstasy to a teenaged kid – the best parts for me are the down-to-earth scenes of mates just hanging out and bullshitting before, during and after parties.

The night-in-the-life format really lets director Justin Kerrigan and his ensemble actors explore the nuances of being a music fan and club head. Things we can all relate to, from the excitement when a hot import hits the record shop (in what’s probably the film’s most beloved and widely shared scene), to blagging your way past the door staff at a sold-out gig. All the details are so perfect, from the records the characters collect and the posters on their walls to the running jokes that all groups of friends have.

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Perhaps Human Traffic’s most prominent and controversial feature is its blunt depiction of casual drug use amongst the “chemical generation.”

It shows things few other films would dare to so brazenly or non-judgmentally – the film’s main characters doing hash deals, tripping balls in a club, or doing coke off a mirror. And it portrays what it’s like to be on ecstasy better than any other film I’ve seen. The scene in which Jip and his friend and love interest Lulu have an awkwardly flirty conversation in the club’s chillout room while off their faces is so dead-on it might as well be documentary footage.

At the peak of his high, Jip says, “We risk sanity for moments of temporary enlightenment,” and this spooky honesty is one of the best aspects of Human Traffic. It’s a film about paranoia as much as euphoria. The ugliness of the comedown, the awful loneliness of bad tripping in a roomful of other people. The contrast between these depressing and jittery moments and the friendship and romance that anchor the story provides this colourful and heartfelt film with unusual richness, and ensure that it lives up to its hype.

Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.