Northern Soul

northern soul cover

This gritty and authentic rites-of-passage drama is a love-letter to the Northern Soul scene of the 1970s. With its meticulous attention to period detail, its strong central performances and euphoric music and dancing, first-time writer-director Elaine Constantine has created the best film about British youth culture since QUADROPHENIA.

Life is grim in 1974 for a teenager growing up in Burnsworth, Lancashire. Outsider John (newcomer Elliot James Langridge) has already expressed his feelings about the place in giant white graffiti. He doesn’t get on with his parents, but his mum (Lisa Stansfield) unwittingly points him in the direction of salvation and escape. Worried that he’s ‘becoming a weirdo’ and a recluse, she suggests he tries the local youth club.
It is here that John witnesses a cool kid doing a strange dance to an obscure American soul record from the late 1960s. After he helps out the charismatic Matt (Josh Whitehouse) in a fight, they become firm friends and John is a northern soul convert. ‘That dance you were doing,’ he tells Matt, ‘it were like watching Bruce Lee.’

Matt works in a factory, but his dream is to travel to America, where they have warehouses with tons of soul records nobody in UK has heard before. After he gives John a makeover – from 1950s dork to ‘50% Bruce Lee’ – the two friends start to DJ together and soon all the kids at the youth club are dancing to their music.

From the start drugs are part of the scene. Matt gives John a fistful of amphetamine capsules and tells him ‘in 45 minutes you’ll be into next week’. There follows a comic scene of a bug-eyed John sitting in bed, speeding and chewing gum, listening to Edwin Starr on his headphones. But after they meet tattooed nutter Sean, who drives them to Wigan Casino and other soul all-niters, the dark side of addiction threatens to tear them apart.

John is uncomfortable about his friend’s escalating drug use. It is making him obnoxious and affecting his DJ patter. After he shows up an awkward dancer (‘this is northern soul. Not northern arseholes’), the two fall out. Their friendship is at the heart of the film, so the rest of the drama is played out like a bromance – will they ever get back together again? Will they ever go to America?

Constantine had been trying to make the film for 15 years

The two newcomers are so good that we can excuse the rather heavy-handed plot, with its sketchily-drawn minor cast. And the real star of the film is the music. Writer-director Constantine is clearly a devotee and she is great at showing soul’s raw excitement and the passion that it inspired in its fans. Like the punks who came after them, northern soul fans were at war with boring chart music. NORTHERN SOUL opens to the strains of Brand New Harvester by The Wurzels, a No. 1 hit of the day, and from then on we know that this is the enemy that must be destroyed.

Northern soul favourites such as The Night by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons and Don Thomas’s Come on Train sound irresistible in this context. Turnin’ My Heartbeat Up (The M.V.Ps) sums up the adrenaline rush we get when we watch the film’s dancers spinning and back-dropping.

NORTHERN SOUL is clearly a labour of love. Constantine had been trying to make the film for 15 years, with fans already sending in the clothes they wore in the 70s. So no surprise that the period detail is spot-on: Solatio shoes, S belt buckles, high-waister bags, pvc bomber jackets; nice to hear some of the playground jargon of the time again -‘soz’ (sorry), if not the reminders of what a nasty time it could also be (‘spazz’).