Where were you the first time that you heard the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer? You may not recognize the machine’s name, but you know its sound. Though only 12,000 808s were manufactured between 1980 and 1983, the 808 has become quite possibly the most influential musical instrument of the last 35 years.
Director Alexander Dunn’s stylish first feature charts the evolution of the 808’s musical relevance, tracing how its syncopated rhythms and earthshaking beats revolutionized popular music. Using Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” as its launching point, 808 shifts between songs, genres, and countries to reveal this unique machine’s impact on the innumerable musicians and producers who fell under its spell. Dunn mixes these songs together with a treasure trove of rare archival footage, ’80s style animation, and interviews with dozens of 808 disciples and devotees, ranging from members of the Beastie Boys and Talking Heads to Pharrell Williams and Diplo.
Combining musical knowledge, technical insight, and a genuine enthusiasm for the subject, 808 captures how vision, inspiration, and ingenuity could transform a small device with only 16 Sounds and 32 Patterns into the heartbeat of today’s music.