Northern Soul - Film Review
This love letter to a subculture is made with a lot of heart but the movie can't match the soundtrack
Elaine Constantine’s cinematic love letter to Northern Soul has been a long time in the making and comes garlanded with a huge, authentic soundtrack and a book that delves deep into the psyches of scene stalwarts. Clearly a lot of heart’s gone into this, and with good reason. It’s a movement as ripe for celebration as it was when Wigan Casino’s sprung floors were jumping.
The book’s the real-life companion but Constantine’s film is pure drama. Set in fictional but beautifully rendered Lancashire town Burnsworth in 1974, it charts a fast friendship between teenagers John (Elliot James Langridge) and Matt (Josh Whitehouse), who bond over shared obsessions with obscure US 7″s and flailing around on youth club dancefloors, dreaming of record-buying trips to America. The journey to some kind of vinyl catharsis takes in DJing gigs, a pilgrimage to Wigan and greedy amounts of speed.
In the middle of all this squalor, it’s the music that stands for redemption, and Angela (Antonia Thomas), a nurse who catches John’s eye, is surely a personification of Northern Soul itself. Initially unattainable, she’s the daughter of a black American father from Chicago – also a hotbed of soul – and becomes a kind of guardian angel. Saviour, fish out of water and object of desire all rolled into one, Angela is a Lou Pride 45 made flesh. It’s a clunky device but the whole thing is painted with a broad brush. John finds release from his drab home life with an Edwin Starr single and the mere sight of Matt’s exuberant moves. Necking a near-lethal dose of amphetamines is a momentary inconvenience. Of course Constantine wants to get on, but skimping on unwieldy detail makes it all feel shallow.
The performances are mixed too. Langridge’s conflicted lead swallows the screen, but Whitehouse is upstaged by a charismatic turn from Hollyoaks’ Ashley Taylor Dawson, while Cockney Sean (Jack Gordon) is a pantomime update of Withnail & I’s Camberwell Carrot-rolling Danny. If the film has depth, it’s in the dancing – a maelstrom of sweaty, flying limbs – the period setting and of course the music, an expertly-curated selection ranging from Tobi Legend to Shirley Ellis to any other name you’ve never heard because they’ve been hidden behind white labels.
That’s the risk with fetishisation of an underground culture. The music sounds as glorious with the game given away in the credits as it does with a white sticker slapped over its label, but the flatly ordinary dissection of the subculture, its impulses and its heady release endangers the magic. Constantine’s heart is in the right place but the movie never had a chance of matching the soundtrack.
Director: Elaine Constantine
Release date: 17 Oct, 2014