Elaine Constantine’s debut feature, Northern Soul is a fantastic feat in British filmmaking and showcases some of the most exciting new talents of the year including its director/writer as well as its lead actor, Elliot James Langridge. A popular sub-genre of British film are those about the various music scenes in the UK from 24 Hour Party People, to Control, to Trainspotting and Quadrophenia. Northern Soul explores another of these scenes, up North in 1974 where a generation of young people were discovering black American soul music and what this meant to a generation who were going at it alone in the world.
Constantine’s story follows two young guys, John (Langridge) and Matt (Josh Whitehouse) who slowly become invested in this world of discovery, eager to find out the new tunes before anyone else. They soon become immersed in a new movement within the clubbing world, learning how to DJ a night and what music will really bring in the crowds. The pair meet at the local youth centre, where Matt has been begging the resident DJ to let him spin the decks. Whilst the centre’s soundtrack is filled with the current pop chart (think Cliff Richard), Matt soon brings with him a fresh and original style that catches the attention of certain people within the crowd. One of these people is the lonely and quiet John, who has been coerced into going to the centre to try and make some friends. But when he hears the music for the first time and that Matt stands out from the crowd and has no intention of trying to fit in, he is drawn to his character and to the world where the lyrics speak to deeply to his soul.
Together John and Matt learn more about soul music and where they can go to listen to it. Along with the others in their group that come on board, they travel around from club to club, centre to centre, wherever they can go to listen to this new style of music that is permeating this generation. John spots a local nurse, Angela (Antonia Thomas), a beautiful girl who he is sure would never go for him but when his social status starts to climb amongst the young people in their town, Angela starts to realise the world that is being opened up in front of her. From here the pair start to navigate between the drink and the drugs, the crime and craze. There is a study within Constantine’s world of examining the balance between working with this original and thrilling music but also on the cusp of losing it all.
The chemistry between the central two, Langridge and Whitehouse, deserves a special mention – the portrayal of their friendship is as good as anything else this year. The pair manages to represent the everyman perfectly, going from two young people with nothing to their name and nowhere to go and soon becoming captured by these beautiful sounds and figuring out their own path. This makes them instantly likeable to the audience but also allows the audience to see themselves on screen. Both actors are careful to balance the emotional power of their characters with a dark humour that this world provides.
Northern Soul is the sort of story that is bound to (and deserves to) have widespread appeal, especially amongst young audiences. There is nothing different between this group in the 70s to the youth today – always striving forward for the next best craze and always exploring what is going to help them speak their minds. These are intellectually aware people who understand the power of music and of culture; the lyrics, the beats, the dances and the places where they listened to this music started to characterise who they were and who they were going to grow into. The nightclub scenes and the intense moments of rhythmic dancing are some of the best in the whole film – they embody all the emotions of all the characters and talk directly to the audience. But it is no different today; groups of people looking for some form of substance or style to represent them and tell them what they want to hear.
Constantine’s film itself is outstanding, with a careful exploration of the characters and the world around them – her characterisation of everyone is so fully formed that the audience are brought into their world and care what is going to happen by the end. Whenever there is a chance of risk or danger, the audience are forced onto the edge of their seats, worried. But at the height of their happiness, when the music is in their bones and controlling their every movement, it also affects the audience. The films locations, costumes and style are so symbolic and characterising of the 70s that the audience are transformed into the world, whether they had lived it or not, they are forced to understand and become part of it with the rest of the characters.
The soundtrack is of course key to a film like Northern Soul to work; this is the focus of the story and the exact right music is necessary to bring the audience fully into their world. Music from Edwin Starr to Frankie Valli and Marvin Gaye, the exact right notes were hit to represent the feelings of the characters at the time. Even for uninitiated, the film makes the audience understand pretty quickly the affect the music could have – that is the power of it!
A strong contender for one of the finest British debuts of the year, Northern Soul is a film with a heart and a soul and makes you fall in love with the music over and over again.