DIR/WRI: Elaine Constantine • PRO: Debbie Gray • DOP: Simon Tindall • ED: Stephen Haren • DES: Robin Brown • CAST: Elliot James Langridge, Josh Whitehouse, Antonia Thomas, Steve Coogan, Christian McKay, Ricky Tomlinson, Lisa Stansfield
Elaine Constantine, a celebrated photographer of British youth culture who first came to prominence with her work for The Face, makes the leap into narrative filmmaking with the functionally titled Northern Soul, a drama set against the backdrop of the soul music craze that swept Northern England in the early 1970s. The leads are relative newcomers Elliot James Langridge and John Whitehouse, who play young friends John and Matt. Bonded by their dedication to the Northern Soul scene, the duo track down rare soul records, aspire to become DJs, and plot an escape to America. Most importantly, they go out dancing, first at the local youth club and later at Wigan Casino, a nerve-centre of the Northern Soul subculture.
Constantine’s affinity for this moment in British youth culture is apparent throughout the film, and she conjures a persuasive sense of time and place. The dreary Lancashire town from which John and Matt hail is captured to a fault, and the nightclub scenes are as potent as anything in Saturday Night Fever (1977), a clear influence on this film. One particular scene in Wigan Casino achieves a near hypnotic force, as the leads disappear into an amorphous mass of dancers, spellbound by the music. The music choices are excellent throughout, with an early scene putting Edwin Starr’s “Time” to effective use, while Frankie Valli’s taut gem “The Night” is a welcome addition to any soundtrack.
Problems arise, though, when Constantine turns her eye away from the Northern Soul scene in general and onto her specific narrative. Bluntly speaking, there’s nothing to it. Each story beat in the forging of John and Matt’s friendship and its eventual disintegration feels heavily telegraphed and predictable as a metronome. This narrative flatness isn’t a problem in the opening scenes, when the potency of the atmosphere is enough to draw us in, but the film unravels when it takes a turn into melodrama that requires us to invest in the thinly drawn characters as more than mere tour-guides to a particular milieu. A final dive into the saccharine feels particularly contrived, as the film’s observational style gives way to an awkward magical realism.
Langridge and Whitehouse acquit themselves reasonably, and are equal to the physical demands of their roles. As Angela, the object of John’s unrequited affections, the talented Antonia Thomas is left short-changed, with Constantine apparently even less sure of what to do with her than her tongue-tied hero is. The film’s reluctance to explore how Angela’s individual perspective on Northern Soul might be distinguished by her bi-racial identity and dual nationality represents a missed opportunity to add complexity to an exceedingly linear script. Elsewhere, a slew of well-known faces appear in cameo roles that provide colour but disrupt the verisimilitude, most notably when Steve Coogan pops up in full “Alan Partridge” mode as a repulsive schoolteacher. As John’s mother, singer Lisa Stansfield is given a little more to work with and puts in a creditable showing.
16 (See IFCO for details)
Northern Soul is released 17th October 2014