"A fast-paced and sweaty portrayal of England’s throwback memories.”
It’s '70s Britain and underground soul music just hit a feverish high in Northern Soul, the directorial debut of veteran photographer Elaine Constantine. This first feature from the director-screenwriter is a montage of sweaty disco clubs, gyrating teenagers and careless romances in an era where music fuelled the working-class dreams.
The movie is set in the fictional industrial town of Burnsworth in Manchester. John (Elliott James Langridge) is a shy and timid social misfit who wants to break free from his oppressive school, especially from his bully classmates and self-important and overbearing teacher (Steve Coogan). His parents (Christian McKay, Lisa Stansfield) notice his unhappiness so they prod him to visit the local youth center where he meets Matt (Josh Whitehouse), a tattooed, long-haired and ill-tempered unmet schoolmate. Matt impresses John with his flash dance moves and cool guy vibe. The two instantly become good friends and other than a style makeover, Matt introduces John to the groove of black American soul music, athletic dance routines and amphetamine-driven club scenes.
Soon, John leaves school, works in a factory and moves in with Matt. They also begin to host their own club nights and influence the local youth to spin into the beat of soul music. While scheming of putting up their own club, they also dream of flying to the United States to buy rare vinyl records. Their relationship changes when John encounters Sean (Jack Gordon), a wild older co-worker at the factory, who later acquaints them to Northern Soul deejay legend Ray Henderson (James Lance).
Northern Soul deals with a rich and uplifting subject matter. It depicts how the briskly and vigorous music of urban black America ignited romances between British working-class teens, creating a subculture in northwest England, particularly in Manchester. However, the film intermittently steers away from the central premise as it integrates various subplots relating to drug use, family friction, car accident and unsteady friendship. Except for the two leads’ falling in and out, such ideas are never fully explored and written, resulting to shortage of dramatic focus and narrative dynamics. The characters are also thinly-drawn that connection to the viewers feels weak. Angela (Antonia Thomas) is unfortunately underused and her arc may be cautiously cut without endangering the entire flick.
There are shortcomings in the narrative but the movie excels in most technical aspects. Soundtracks are remarkably nifty, featuring terrific songs by Edwin Starr, Frankie Valli and many others. Such anthems come along with infectiously invigorating dance numbers. Director Constantine has a great eye for visuals and she meticulously recreated the 1970s British town. She beautifully captures the drabness and loneliness of the neighborhood, as well as the steamy nights in the club.
The film is also well-acted. Langridge, with his awkward stance and scared-boy face, effectively portrays the growth of John. Whitehouse is a perfect-fit for Matt who strikes a dynamic bromance with John. Coogan is delightful in his small role as the terrorizing schoolteacher. Thomas, who seems to be a great talent, stands out as John’s love interest Angela.
Northern Soul is coolly-spirited and determinedly gritty. Despite its slender story, the movie remains engaging because of its spot-on portrayal of one of England’s finest historical local culture. With Constantine’s gift of educing an overwhelmingly nostalgic atmosphere, the film is successful and likable as a whole.
Production companies: Stubborn Heart Films, Baby Cow
Cast: Elliot James Langridge, Josh Whitehouse, Antonia Thomas, Steve Coogan, Lisa Stansfield, Jack Gordon, James Lance, Christian McKay, Rickly Tomlinson, Taylor Dawson
Director-screenwriter: Elaine Constantine
Producer: Debbie Gray
Executive producers: Julian Gleek, Edward Crozier, Robbie Little, Marco Santuci, Henry Normal, Kevin Loader, Kevin Phelan, Richard Searling
Director of photography: Simon Tindall
Production designer: Robin Brown
Costume designers: Adam Howe, Yvonne Duckett
Editor: Stephen Haren
Music supervisors: Gary Welch, Ady Croasdell, Butch