Relevance always gives you an edge in my reviews; so many films harp back to fifty, sixty years ago, and the world we live in is changing by the day. To take nothing away from One Night in Miami, or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or other awards friendly period pieces, but it’s a big positive tho see Paul Starkman’s Wheels, the story of a young man and his ambition to DJ, and feel that it’s set in a recognisably real world.
Sent an online screener for this film, I watched the first twenty seconds before deciding it was worth a spin; the opening sees a DJ Max (Arnstar) hunched over his decks, intent. A reverse shot offers a punch-line; he’s DJ-ing for a children’s party, where tiny kids are playing musical chairs. And yet we can see from the way he plays that Max has got talent; can he navigate the familiar obstacles of the urban struggle to realise his dreams?
Max has a full schedule; he’s prime care-giver for his grandmother, he plays parties for a local gangster, and he’s got some thinking to do when his brother Terry (Joshua Boone) returns home after three years in the slammer. And on top of that, there’s a new girl in his life, Liza (Shyrley Rodriguez), who runs the local dance studio. Liza loves music, but has Max got what it takes to impress her?
‘Enough bullsh*t!’ one character says as they square up to Max, and that’s part of the problem he has; Max has to fake it until he makes it, but keeping up appearances isn’t easy. Shot in crisp black and white, Wheels starts with a lovely credits sequence in the style of a classic tv show, showing Max in Brooklyn, but beating the streets carrying out menial tasks. Starckman’s film is frank about the difficulties facing a young, creative person, and we follow Max down a few unrewarding rabbit holes as DJ-ing gigs falls through and his local studio heads towards closure. These set-backs are balanced against a display of indomitable spirit; music is the spine of the film, and even when Max’s life is one the ropes, his beats promise a better life to come.
Wheels has plenty going from it, from Arnstar’s winning central performance to Rodriguez’s feisty, no-pushover romance. But best of all is a superbly mixed soundtrack which will leave you wanting to screen-shot the end credits; it’s been a while since a film was carried along so effectively by the musical choices, all of which are thematically linked to Max’s development. There’s not many old DJ’s, and there’s a reason for that, but Starkman’s Wheels captures the ups and down of musical youth with great style, and it’s the kind of on-point indie effort that really deserves a big audience.