'Northern Soul': Film Review
Steve Coogan makes a comic cameo in writer-director Elaine Constantine's low-budget love letter to a feverish musical subculture that flourished in 1970s Britain
An underdog project which jumped into the Top 10 list for UK box-office receipts last week despite its limited theatrical release and near-simultaneous launch on home entertainment formats, Northern Soul marks the directing debut of photographer turned film-maker Elaine Constantine. Originally intending to make a documentary about the underground soul music scene which enjoyed a feverish cult following across parts of Britain in the mid 1970s, Constantine instead switched to a dramatic treatment of the subject, producing a rites-of-passage period piece that feels at times like a low-budget English cousin of Saturday Night Fever.
Though its leads are mostly young unknowns drawn from British television, Northern Soul features a handful of famous cameos, most notably Steve Coogan, whose production company Baby Cow also has a credit. Coogan’s small but widely trailed comic role as a pompous schoolteacher may help explain the film’s unexpected success. It is a pity the comedian did not bring his usual team of writers with him, because Constantine’s skills as a first-time dramatist are a serious weakness here. Though the subject matter is rich and the soundtrack terrific, character and plot take a back seat. Commercial appeal outside Britain will be limited to specialist Anglophile pop-culture nerds.
A love affair between mostly white British working-class kids and the fast-paced dance music of urban black America, the northern soul scene acquired its name because it was a regional subculture centered around the industrial towns of northwest England –chiefly Manchester, Blackpool and Wigan, the latter home to the scene’s most famous club, the Casino. Constantine’s film takes place in 1974 in the fictionalized backwater burg of Burnsworth, where shy but quietly rebellious teenage schoolboy John (Elliott James Langridge) finds escape from his stifling family, oppressive school and soul-crushing factory job through the liberating power of music.
John’s fast-track to the cool crowd is his hot-headed new buddy Matt (Josh Whitehouse), who initiates him into the amphetamine-fuelled nightclubs, athletic dance steps and fierce musical snobbery of the northern soul scene. The duo are soon hosting their own club nights, and dreaming of a trip to the US to buy rare vinyl records. John even plucks up courage to talk to beautiful nurse Angela (Antonia Thomas), the only mixed-race girl in town, after months of silently lusting and yearning.
Between realistically sweaty dancefloor sequences, and even more authentically drab recreations of 1970s small-town Britain, Constantine throws in multiple subplots involving family friction, hard drugs, a fatal car accident and an acrimonious bust-up between John and Matt. But all this feels schematic and superfluous to the main theme, which is ostensibly the euphoria and camaraderie of the music. In an even odder dramatic decision, Constantine pushes the thinly drawn female characters to the margins lest they get in the way of the central bromance. Angela is shamefully underused, only scoring her first kiss with John a full 90 minutes into the 100-minute running time.
The saving grace of Northern Soul is its soundtrack – more than 50 vintage floor-filling anthems including Frankie Valli, Tobi Legend, Edwin Starr, Linda Jones and more. Although the fondly remembered original scene faded with the advent of disco in the late 1970s, it has subsequently been revived and rediscovered by younger fans and new club promoters. This project was clearly a labor of love for Constantine, but it is hard not to conclude that her original documentary idea might have had a lot more passion than this flat-footed fictional treatment.
Production companies: Stubborn Heart Films, Baby Cow
Starring: Elliot James Langridge, Josh Whitehouse, Antonia Thomas, Steve Coogan, Lisa Stansfield
Director: Elaine Constantine
Screenwriter: Elaine Constantine
Producers: Julian Gleek, Edward Crozier, Debbie Gray
Cinematographer: Simon Tindall
Editor: Stephen Haren
Production designer: Robin Brown
Costume designers: Adam Howe, Yvonne Duckett
Casting: Manuel Puro
Rated 15 (UK), 102 minutes