Review: Northern Soul (2014)
Director: Elaine Constantine
Screenwriter: Elaine Constantine
Cast: Elliot James Langridge, Josh Whitehouse, Jack Gordon, Antonia Thomas, James Lance, Steve Coogan, Christian McKay & Lisa Stansfield
Runtime: 102 min // Certificate: 15
Elaine Constantine’s debut feature Northern Soul, which boasts supporting turns from such well-known faces as Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa), Ricky Tomlinson (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) and Lisa Stansfield (The Edge of Love), is a likeable coming-of-age film that, while quite generic and predictable, flirts with enough darker themes to elevate it above and beyond your usual, derivative, nostalgia-laden dreck.
Set in Lancashire in the mid-70s – a decade rife with the type of social unrest and desire for change that seems all too familiar nowadays – Northern Soul often feels like a grittier but less enchanting version of Almost Famous, complete with the same passion for a particular genre of music and killer soundtrack that Crowe’s film possesses. It tells the story of John (Langridge) and Matt (Whitehouse), two working class lads with nothing but an LP collection and a dream to call their own, as they try to make a name for themselves on the Lancashire DJ’ing circuit, specialising in American Soul music. What follows is a tale of awkward romances, drug abuse and dangerous run-ins with the law as the two friends find their friendship tested to the limit by conflicting ideas about how to succeed in and escape from the murky Lancashire club scene.
With its fierce sense of humour and a confident visual flair from Constantine, who does a fantastic job of capturing 70s Lancashire in all its ugly glory, Northern Soul is a flawed but enjoyable film that does everything you want and expect it to do. Built upon two great central performances from Langridge and Whitehouse, the film is primarily a character-driven drama that uses a somewhat forgotten culture of rebellion and nonconformity as its backdrop. See, while the northern soul subculture plays an important role, its effect on the characters and their lives is the main focus of Constantine’s screenplay, which is rife with dry humour and some quite subtle drama.
At the heart of Northern Soul is – of course – its soundtrack, which brims with a frenetic energy. Constantine weaves lots of incredible tracks into the film, taking her audience on a musical journey through the very best that northern soul, both as a genre and a subculture, has to offer. There’s a keen focus here not just on the songs but also the clubs, the fashions and the ideologies that they inspired and represented. The soundtrack helps to elevate the film above typical coming-of-age fare; it isn’t just about the music but how the music was able to unite often disparate communities in an uncomfortable but worthwhile harmony. Furthermore, Constantine pays close attention to the dance crazes that swept the clubs at the time, using them to great comic effect as she captures the moods and mind-sets of this particular subculture of 1970s Northern England. The near-ethereal dance floor sequences, which are bright and anarchic, stand in stark contrast to the cold, grey depression of the Lancashire town in which the characters live; a juxtaposition that Constantine exploits to its fullest.
Northern Soul conforms heavily to the typical trappings of its genre expectations, though that is by no means a bad thing. In fact, in many ways, it all adds to the film’s infectious charm. Despite some bleak undertones and both an acceptance and exploration of some of the harsher realities of youth culture in Lancashire at the height of northern soul’s dominance, it is very much a “comfort film” that dabbles in similar fanciful ideas, notions and dreams to the classic coming-of-age dramas and comedies of the 1980s. As a result, the consequences of certain key actions and events aren’t explored in quite as much detail as they perhaps should be, which serves to restrict the emotional and dramatic impact of the film’s most harrowing moments somewhat. Similarly, though the supporting cast do a solid job of aiding the two leads through the film’s clunkier and more forceful moments, most of them are underused and thus feel a tad underdeveloped as the film attempts to juggle a few too many threads at once. Nevertheless, thanks to Constantine’s clear adoration for the music, her characters and, most crucially, the era, there’s more than enough going on to keep the audience engaged in the drama.
For a debut effort, Northern Soul is very accomplished. It falls into some avoidable traps that a more experienced director / writer would no doubt have dodged, but Constantine has a clear style that grants her film some character and authenticity. She blends youthful idealism with kitchen-sink realism to create a film that is, despite its flaws, both amusing and narratively engaging from start to finish. If you’re a fan of the music, you’ll feel swept away by Northern Soul’s passion for its subject. If you’re not, and I can’t say I am (though I’ll never get bored of listening to Frankie Valli’s “The Night”), then you should still find enough to like in the film’s humorous characters, screenplay and story.