There’s a pivotal scene in Edgar Wright’s recent film Last Night in Soho where Sandie, an aspiring pop star portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy, stands on stage in a deserted nightclub in 1960s London singing “Downtown”. The original version of “Downtown”, a hit for singer Petula Clark in 1964, was emblematic of the period. Its lyrics portray the city as a place where lights are bright and possibilities are endless. It evokes the popular image of 1960s London as a paradise of abundant opportunities for aspiring artists, musicians, and models; when young people were transforming the culture and when young women, in particular, were enjoying new freedoms.
The song anticipated a famous Time magazine cover story published in 1966. With the headline
“LONDON: The Swinging City”, the story popularized the myth of ’60s London as a haven for Mary Quant-mini-dress-wearing, rhythm-and-blues-loving iconoclasts. Last Night in Soho’s “Downtown”, however, lacks the bombastic orchestral accompaniment that imbues the original with this feeling of excitement and possibility. Instead, Taylor-Joy delivers a spooky, a capella rendition that belies the optimistic lyrics, and makes downtown sound like a haunted, lonely place.
Because of moments like this, Last Night in Soho has been called a critique of nostalgia for the so-called “Swinging Sixties”, which is popularly remembered as a time of opportunity, counter-cultural excitement, and new freedoms. The film follows Elsie (played by Thomasin MacKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer who moves to London in the present day. Elsie is enamored with 1960s music, fashion, and culture, and she begins to see the London of the 1960s in her dreams, through Sandie’s eyes.
Gradually, the Soho of Elsie’s dreams is revealed to be false—instead, it’s a dangerous place where young women like Sandie and Elsie are at constant risk of being exploited, where the lure of opportunity and freedom hides the sexist forces that are ultimately in control. But while the film critiques a particular strain of ’60s nostalgia, it is not a whole-cloth dismissal of nostalgia itself.
Last Night in Soho is a deeply nostalgic film: the sets lovingly and meticulously recreate the nightclubs, restaurants, and streets of ’60s Soho. The cast includes Rita Tushingham and Diana Rigg, two much-beloved stars of the era. The costumes, the colors, and above all, the soundtrack carefully conjure a fantastical vision of the period.
If nostalgia is a feeling of longing for an idealized past, then Last Night in Soho doesn’t condemn nostalgia. Instead, it champions an alternative nostalgic narrative: nostalgia for a different 1960s, in which young women could be each other’s allies. And in this more critical, subversive nostalgia, the film suggests that alliances between women could reshape how we make music and art today.
Freedom Girls: Swinging Single Girls or Proto-Feminist Solidarity?
Girls and young women in the ’60s got one story about the promises of the swinging city – but within the music industry, a different narrative held sway. Young women’s magazines like Boyfriend, Petticoat, and Honey were full of fictional and non-fictional stories of young women like Sandie. Boyfriend’s months-long serial story “The Freedom Girls” was about a young woman pursuing success in London, while Honey ran non-fiction articles with titles like “How to Leave Home and Like It”. Many of these stories focused on young women pursuing individual achievement, success, and love – again bolstering the attitude that girls’ ultimate ambition was marriage and heterosexual romance.
However, they also enabled readers to identify with other young women. And real girls who had made it in the city wrote for and edited these magazines. Real-life singers like Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black, and Dusty Springfield wrote advice columns. The woman-dominated editorial teams of Petticoat wrote about attempting to launch their own radio station. For all of their shortcomings, these magazines provided a kind of proto-feminist instance of girls addressing and relating to one another.
But within the music industry, the idea that girls could be allies would have been news. In 1960s British popular music culture, depictions of young women were contradictory. For instance, Beatles manager Brian Epstein explained that Cilla Black was the only girl singer he ever planned to represent – because girls, a major record-buying audience, weren’t interested in music by other girls – their competitors for the romantic affections of boys. This attitude was shared by many in the music industry: in a roundtable on girl singers that appeared in the New Musical Express in 1962, a number of record company higher-ups expressed a similar view.
These attitudes meant that opportunities for women in music were kept artificially scarce, women musicians had fewer models and peers than their male counterparts, and fewer opportunities to develop the kinds of “whisper networks” about abusers that often exist among women. Last Night in Soho’s version of the music industry offers a heightened version of this reality: Sandie is never shown interacting with other women in meaningful ways. Instead, she looks to male power-brokers, who do not have her interests at heart, as the people to guide her through the music business.
Nostalgia for Possible Pasts and Futures
While Last Night in Soho is critical of how the ’60s has been romanticized, it is deeply nostalgic for the possibilities of connection between women that the media of the period promised – and it shows the potential of cross-generational connections between young women. When we first meet protagonist Elsie in her bedroom in the present day, she has a cover of Petticoat on her wall – a significant choice that anticipates the connections between girls that the film later celebrates.
The voices of real ’60s girls literally permeate the film and seem to motivate the plot: Elsie listens to Cilla Black’s “You’re my World” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart” when she tries on vintage dresses; and when she arrives in London, it’s to the strains of Dusty Springfield’s “Wishin’ and Hopin;” – a song that, on its face, is about wishing for romance, but here becomes emblematic of wishing for new possibilities.
Elsie starts to see London through Sandie’s eyes in her dreams – and her delight seems to derive from seeing a peer experiencing freedom and navigating the spaces of the city fearlessly. The horror emerges gradually. It isn’t derived from some kind of supernatural horror movie monster. Instead, it builds up gradually as Elsie sees Sandie experiencing everyday instances of abuse and exploitation that gradually intensify. Her horror comes from seeing Sandie’s freedom stripped away from her, piece by piece, day by day.
The moment when her visions of Sandie shift from dream to nightmare happens when she witnesses Sandie dancing on stage in a burlesque bar to “Puppet on a String”, a song that the real-life Sandie Shaw performed as Britain’s entry in the 1967 Eurovision song contest. Shaw recorded this song under pressure from her manager and was dismayed both by the demeaning lyrics about relinquishing agency and appearing in Eurovision, which she saw as a step away from her artistic goals. In both its history and lyrical content, the song encapsulates the kind of limitations placed on young women in the music industry.
While Sandie’s London is one where women are isolated, Elsie’s world is one where women are connected. Raised by her grandmother and dogged by memories of her late mother (who csme of age in the ’60s), Elsie’s understanding of the ’60s is shaped by these connections. She tries to build similar connections with Sandie – trying to warn her and to point her away from danger. Elsie’s connection with and understanding of Sandie is, ultimately, the vehicle for Sandie’s redemption.
In The Future of Nostalgia, literary theorist Svetlana Boym suggests that all nostalgia is created equal – it can be at turns conservative and reactionary or it can be subversive, speaking to new ways of envisioning the future. Nostalgia often masks inequality: if we remember the ’60s pop world only as a time of excitement and possibility, abuses of power are forgotten and that makes it harder to address similar abuses in the present. But some nostalgia looks for hidden possibilities in the past and lets us imagine a different kind of future.
Elsie’s ’60s nostalgia is for the possibility of escape and freedom that the period represented to young women, and for the ways that they could look to each other for support navigating a dangerous world. Like all idealized visions of the past, it’s incomplete and leaves people out – Elsie’s connection with Sandie, is, notably, a bridge built between two white women. It doesn’t speak to the different challenges women of color in the music and culture industries face, or the way that white women perpetuated racism in rock and pop culture. The reality is that a horror film about a Black or Brown singer in ’60s Soho might well have included white women like Sandie among its villains.
Last Night in Soho ends with Elsie and Sandie sharing a smile with each other through a mirror, across time, before Elsie debuts her first dress collection. The dresses evoke ’60s fashion, but with a modernist slant, as though they are taking materials from the past to find a new direction. For all the stories it leaves out, Last Night in Soho‘s nostalgia is ultimately about possibilities for transformation: it suggests that some girls, young women, and others who have been denied cultural power and influence, can use the promises and myths of the past to imagine different ways to collaborate, connect, and make music, culture, and art in the present.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books. 2008.
Briger, Sam. “Edgar Wright tells a different kind of ghost story in ‘Last Night in Soho'”. Fresh Air. NPR. 1 November 2021.
Sims, David. “When a Film’s Message Doesn’t Match Its Spectacle”. The Atlantic. 29 October 2021.