MDMA and, in pill form, ecstasy is intertwined with dance music and rave culture. Partake or not, a Big Night Out on E with your best mates listening to your favourite DJs is one of the main dance music tropes, something that countless people have done that's taken on a mythical quality thanks to it being a shared experience which usually results in some kind of epiphany (brief, long-lasting or otherwise) along the way.
Many filmmakers have tried to encapsulate this magical state of being with varying degrees of success and to the point that the ecstasy movie (along with the ecstasy song) is very much a Hollywood sub-genre. It's notoriously difficult to capture the club atmosphere and its associated drug experience on film but that hasn't stopped writers and directors from trying.
Here are the best MDMA and ecstasy films to date in chronological order. Some you'll have rightly seen many times before, others are E deep cuts and there are a few that only ardent MDMA nerds will want to check out. Either way, this is the guide to pingers on the big screen – the Cannes of gurners, if you like.
Don't drop before the titles roll as you might end up wasting your popcorn...
Trainspotting is known for its bleak depiction of heroin use but its four protagonists – Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud – will swallow, snort, smoke or inject anything that they can get their hands on. Ecstasy features in Renton and Sick Boy’s Big Night Out to a nightclub in Glasgow’s West End which results in Renton going home with the brilliantly eviscerating Diane.
While not an out-and-out E film, Trainspotting has gone down in rave history thanks to its anti-establishment narrative, banging soundtrack featuring Underworld, Leftfield, New Order and Primal Scream and the way it arrived smack bang in the middle of dance music’s 90s heyday. That monologue is backed by ‘Born Slippy (Nuxx)’ after all, meaning Trainspotting and rave are forever intertwined.
1996 CLUBBED TO DEATH (LOLA)
‘Clubbed To Death’ is the name of Rob Dougan’s 1995 epic that appears in both The Matrix and Clubbed To Death (Lola), a French film in which 20-year-old Lola enters the dark side of the night via a hot, dry-ice filled rave.
Having fallen asleep on the last bus home, Lola ends up on the wrong side of town only to befriend a random, who gives her an E and invites her to a rowdy nightclub where she ends up embroiled in a love triangle. It’s obviously got Daft Punk on the soundtrack and its gritty aesthetic is an interesting counterpoint to the rose-tinted view of rave in Human Traffic, even if it isn’t the most acclaimed film on this list.
Nowhere follows a crew of teenagers over the course of one day and night in Los Angeles in which they grapple with friendship, sexuality, romantic relationships and the very meaning of life.
Achingly cool (the cast basically set the template for what people are wearing to underground LGBTQ+ parties today), fearlessly promiscuous and desperate to be understood, the troupe head to an ecstasy-fuelled house party where they learn new things about themselves and each other.
Part of Gregg Araki’s Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, Nowhere is a peak-time strobe light of a film featuring a dizzying array of looks, a psychedelic narrative and some head-spinning magic realist moments.
1997 COMING DOWN
Coming Down is something of a precursor to Human Traffic - a short film that nails the rave experience in a uniquely British way. It details the end of the night back at someone’s gaff, as a group of friends get back from a club and crack right on. Everyone’s on E, having deep chats, transient epiphanies and making clumsy attempts at romance. Although it’s only 30 minutes long, it captures the cycle of epic highs and existential lows perfectly (the bulging pupils and cold sweats are particularly accurate) and features a cracking soundtrack of ambient and drum ‘n’ bass from D*Note, Director Matt Winn’s band.
1999 HUMAN TRAFFIC
Human Traffic is the epitome of the rave experience, from clocking off work, to peer-pressuring your mates into going out, to blagging the one who didn’t get a ticket into the club, to dancing your arse off and reaching for the lasers, to chewing someone’s ear off at the afters, to dissolving, finally, into a cuddle puddle on the sofa in your best mate’s flat surrounded by your favourite people in the world. Nothing has yet beaten Human Traffic’s portrayal of the classic BNO on pills. It’s spectacular and one of those drug-fuelled movies that will, unfortunately, make you want to get right on it.
Featuring cameos from Carl Cox, Pete Tong, Howard Marks and defining scenes from a young Danny Dyer (“nice one bruvva!”) and Shaun Parkes (the record store dude), as well as writer/director Justin Kerrigan delivering one of the biggest lines of the movie (“Got any jungle in guy?”), Human Traffic will be relevant for as long as people are going out and cracking on.
What if Human Traffic was made in Hollywood? It’d probably turn out to be like Go, which features friends getting high and going on hedonistic capers. It’s overblown and peppered with sitcom-style jokes but more adrenaline-fuelled than your average rave flick and worth it for the 90s throwback alone.
A grittier depiction of US rave from this time comes in the form of Groove, which hones in on a massive warehouse party in San Francisco that goes bigger than its promoters ever dreamed. It features bona fide scene faces such as Forest Green, WishFM and Polywog as well as a cameo from prog-house hero John Digweed, who also contributed to the soundtrack with his Bedrock project alongside Nick Miur.
2002 24-HOUR PARTY PEOPLE
24-Hour Party People is the rollicking story of Manchester’s music scene in the late 80s and early 90s, revolving around Tony Wilson – co-founder of Factory Records, manager of the Haçienda and one of the city’s most influential tastemakers – played by Steve Coogan. It’s an absolute blast and must have been ridiculously fun to make, given its outrageous sex, drugs ‘n’ post punk/acid house nature and cameos from the two scenes’ leading musicians, including Paul Ryder, Jon DaSilva, Mark E. Smith, Dave Haslam, Mike Pickering and even Tony Wilson himself.
2003 BAD BOYS 2
What kind of list would this be if it didn’t feature Detective Lieutenant Marcus Burnett absolutely pingered off his nut and doing a bad job of hiding it from his boss? The second instalment of one of the best buddy cop movies of all time sees Will Smith and Martin Lawrence chase down some ecstasy dealers with predictably funny and explosive results. Lawrence’s depiction of a first time on E will have you howling – or cringing, if you were that guy.
2003 PARTY MONSTER
Ecstasy is a bittersweet experience: incredibly palpable highs and brutally crushing lows. Its users know that there’s a fine line between the two. Indeed, the melancholy that follows the rush can be enjoyable but it can also fuck with your head and, given that E is a powerful drug, can lead to more seriously damaging symptoms and behaviour.
Party Monster is the fictionalised story of Michael Alig, the promoter and scenester who reigned supreme in New York in the late 80s, making a name for himself while working at Danceteria before moving on to promote parties at The Limelight, The Palladium and Tunnel, as well as his own subterranean raves at offbeat locations. The Pied Piper of NYC, he lead the ‘Club Kids’, a flamboyant, anarchic crew of LGBTQ+ misfits who dressed to impress and partied ridiculously hard. But Alig’s behaviour spiralled out of control, climaxing in the murder of Andre “Angel” Melendez for which he and his roomate were charged with first-degree manslaughter.
Macaulay Culkin plays Alig in the film, his first movie since Richie Rich some nine years previously, and the New York of that time comes alive vividly thanks to a $5m budget. Think pop art, epic nightclubs, big, bold looks and the MDMA and ketamine crystal-studded glitz of the lavish underground.
2004 LAYER CAKE
Nothing like a good ol’ British gangster movie to take the edge off. Here, Daniel Craig plays a smart, stylish cocaine dealer (or entrepreneur, as he’d probably prefer) who’s trying to get out of the business and go legit. Problem is he needs to complete one last big deal which he really can’t turn down. Plenty of bullets and witty one liners ensue, obviously.
Sitting somewhere in the mid league of UK geezer films, after Sexy Beast, Lock Stock… and Snatch, Layer Cake is worth your time thanks to the way Craig’s stylish character comes a cropper by trying to deal with a bumbling gang of Liverpool gangers who’ve nicked a huge stash of pills off a legendary Serbian kingpin.
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Every weekend people congregate in clubs to listen to banging music and a lot of them will be getting high and enjoying the communal experience of ecstasy and whatever other recreational drug takes their fancy. It’s a simple ritual that brings people from different backgrounds together in the same space and low-key independent movie Rolling portrays what happens when worlds collide at the altar of E. This fictional documentary gets under the skin of the MDMA experience and the shines a light on the people who take it, depicted their lives in and out of the club.
2009 ENTER THE VOID
Gaspar Noe’s psychedelic epic Enter The Void features petty drug dealer Oscar and his sister Linda, who dances at a strip club, as they eke out a living in the underbelly of Tokyo. It’s influenced by Noe’s own experiences on drugs, including E, and there’s plenty of it being taken on screen, alongside copious amounts of sex, existential epiphanies and eye-popping cinematography, all of which we expect from the notorious French director. Watch this on as big a screen as possible for maximum drug-addled effect.
This one does what it says on the tin, right? It’s the movie adaptation of The Undefeated, one of the three stories that make up Irvine Welsh’s novel Ecstasy. It doesn’t quite live up to Trainspotting but it’s worth a watch if you’re really invested in seeing all of the E movies. And we couldn’t not include it here.
2012 SPRING BREAKERS
Harmony Korine’s achieved cult status thanks to Kids, Gummo, Julien-Donkey Boy and Trash Humpers, all outsider movies made in his direct, gritty style. In contrast, Spring Breakers, the fluro heist adventure movie soundtracked by ear-splitting trap and EDM, had a $5m budget and was his first film to have a wide release. It stars James Franco and Selena Gomez, with Korine aiming to make a “sensory film” despite its slick Hollywood sheen. It was called out for its portrayal of women but remains an artefact from the height of the EDM era, with its raging, sun-splashed and MDMA-fuelled parties, “turn up” culture and maximalist soundtrack, which is mostly provided here by Skrillex.
MDMA is the directorial debut of Chinese-American filmmaker Angie Wang and is inspired by events from her own life. It follows lead character Angie, who leaves her working-class home in New Jersey to study at a renowned university in San Francisco. Having to keep up with the social lives of her rich classmates, she starts synthesising MDMA at school and dealing it at parties and clubs, soon becoming one of the biggest suppliers on the West Coast. Watch this for a smart take on the E experience, which also deals with issues of class mobility, cultural stereotypes and the pressures of capitalism.
Why are Scottish people responsible for the best acid house movies?! Beats is the most recent release on this list and follows two best mates as they rave in the face of the Criminal Justice Bill, a Tory government and the hard grind of growing up young in Glasgow. Filmed almost entirely in black and white, it’s a classic coming of age film and a bang-on depiction of rave culture.
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