The northern soul scene in the United Kingdom has provided any number of second- and third-tier singers with chances they never had in the United States, and while that may seem like little consolation, the performers seem to feel a genuine sense of gratitude. Throughout Soulvation, long-neglected singers repeat variations on the same story: they can’t believe the appreciation the British audiences have shown them, they’re shocked to be treated like stars, they always thought the song in question could’ve been a hit…
Admittedly, much of the music collected on Soulvation doesn’t sound too different from the uptempo classics cranked out by Motown and other northern-US record labels in the ‘60s. Perhaps the over-familiarity of that stuff necessitated the exhumation of non-hit material by soul fanatics in the UK. After all, you can only dance to the same old song for so long.
So, sure, these are 20 songs you’ll have a hard time not tapping your foot to. And if you’re the sort who likes to dance to old soul sides, these’ll do the trick. But why a DVD? And more importantly, why such an amateurish presentation for this supposedly beloved music? Because really, this is one of the most pathetic things I’ve ever seen.
On the bright side, all of the recordings are the originals, which of course are the only ones that matter. So the music itself isn’t the problem. The downfall of Soulvation comes with the pictures onscreen. Because these songs weren’t hits in the first place, there’s no vintage footage to work with. Faced with this dilemma, the producers opt for staged, lip-synched performances, cover the whole disc with tacky effects, and cram tiny interview clips in-between the songs. It’s barely a film at all, more like a PowerPoint presentation that just won’t end, or the result of a junior-high student’s first experiment with computer animation.
There’s something simultaneously endearing and tragic about watching these performers lip-synching to 30-year-old recordings. You have to marvel at the fact that the producers of Soulvation were able to track these folks down at all, and their enthusiasm for their old recordings is apparent, but wow. It’s hard not to wonder what life has given them in the years since they recorded their songs. We don’t exactly get any of that information, and maybe a decent northern soul documentary is overdue.
As for the music itself, some of these performers will be recognizable to casual soul fans: Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, Edwin Starr, Evie Sands, the Platters, Bettye LaVette. But only Weston’s “Helpless”, the Platters’ “With This Ring”, Jackie Ross’ “Selfish One”, and LaVette’s “Let Me Down Easy” were hits, or even came close. Frank Wilson’s impossibly rare “Do I Love You” is an acknowledged classic, and some of the others may tickle the hardcore soul fan. But much of this music doesn’t exactly make for gripping listening for the casual fan sitting at home.
But Soulvation is not intended for the average listener. It’s meant for the fanatic, who probably has all this music on CD (or, if they’re really serious, on the original 45s). So I ask again: why a DVD? There are no special features, and the 70-minute program itself is awkward, uncomfortable, and dull viewing indeed. Perhaps someone will make a northern soul documentary that puts the music in context, and that does so with some measure of class. This is not that film.