Britain in 1974 was just as gloomy as Elaine Constantine paints it in her debut feature, Northern Soul. Miners’ strikes and power cuts in 1972 gave way to the OPEC oil crisis of 1973, and Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath’s three-day work week and rolling blackouts across the country in 1974. Under the flat grey skies of Britain’s once prosperous northwest, high-paying industrial and manufacturing jobs were evaporating, and along with them went the working-class prosperity of the post-World War II boom. Less than 20 years after another Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, scolded the people of Britain that they had “never had it so good”, many were wondering just how bad it would get.
Amid this uncertainty, writer and director Constantine delivers a conventional coming of age saga wrapped up in a mystical musical odyssey. But despite the vividness with which she and cinematographer Simon Tindall recreate the restless energy and tight confines of being young and working class, their story remains lackluster. Even when the plot is puffed up with affecting cameos by well-known British actors, emerging tensions quickly dissipate. By the time the first half of the movie has elapsed, even the sleepiest viewer knows why: the protagonist of this British movie is the esoteric American soul music it celebrates, not exactly a character with somewhere to go.
That music frames a bromance of sorts. But rather than the physiologically stunted 30-somethings that populate contemporary Hollywood movies of this type, here the leads are struggling teenagers, convincingly at sea in an adult world and convincingly desperate for any port in a storm. John (Eliot James Langridge), bullied at school by both his peers and a convincingly drab Steve Coogan as the kind of teacher who exorcizes his own bitterness on his students, finds even his loving, if inarticulate, parents have lost faith in him.
They propose, as a solution, the local youth club, a haven of last resort for misfits who don’t know they’re misfits. John’s concession to this excruciating ritual of social humiliation is beautifully conveyed in Langridge’s blank pale face and slumped shoulders. Here he meets Matt (Josh Whitehouse), whose wild enthusiasm for a music most definitely not on the youth club playlist invites him into that most exclusive of gangs, a group of two bent on rebellion at 45rpm.
In a sequence that demonstrates how much Constantine might have achieved with a more wholehearted investment in her characters and the direction of her actors, John listens alone to one of Matt’s singles, and physically transforms as the music touches him. In his stuttering, hectic description of what he has heard, he is every young person struck for the first time by the inexplicable but transforming power of art.
John drops out of school, teams up with Matt as an aspirant soul DJ duo, makes a slightly older friend with the sine qua non of urban sophistication, a broken down car capable of taking them to exotic soul gigs, and dabbles in drugs. He also, of course, falls in love — with a girl — who digs soul.
In quick succession, the film is a teen romance, parable of potential upward mobility through music, a cautionary tale about hubris, and morality play about the evils of drugs. As the kids move from one dance hall to another, the locations are be lovingly and authentically recreated, as the players, costumed to perfection, are fired with a visceral adrenaline that can find no other outlet. But there are just too many of them.
Still, with these dance halls, the film excels, resurrecting without pity the dispiriting milieus where working class teens in ’70s Britain might spend their free time. The basement youth club peddles Cliff Richards, a decade past his peak, as the epitome of wholesome cool, under the bored patronage of chain-smoking leader and a balding DJ. The skies of the notoriously cloudy northwest barely light more than the first few feet of threadbare carpet and dark furniture in the small rooms where dancers eat, sleep, and dream.
In the dance halls, we can see the transformation of lost individuals into a glorious tribe of dressed up, sweaty acolytes, flashing their baggy trousers and swirling their flared skirts, all knowing that nothing is more important than liking the right kind of music and sharing it, body to body. Over them all lies the yellow-grey fug of endless cigarettes lit, smoked and stubbed underfoot or crammed into over-filled ashtrays. So successful is this recreation that one can almost smell it.
Constantine originally envisioned this project as a documentary, and her passion for the music, its history and its cultures of clothes and hair and slip-sliding moves, might have emerged even more richly had she stuck to that intention. Despite the lead actors’ hard work, their characters slip away as the credits roll. And the questions that remain are those only documentary can answer. Who made this music? Who were the DJs who made Wigan and Blackpool and Manchester unlikely outposts for this music, with roots in black American culture?