Acclaimed photographer Elaine Constantine makes an assured cinematic debut with a tale of two teenagers in the Northern Soul scene.
John (Elliot James Langridge) is a shy teenager in a dismal Lancashire town in economically depressed and culturally depressing 1974. He’s happy writing poetry, and spending time with his beloved Grandad (Ricky Tomlinson), but his mother (Lisa Stansfield!) is insistent that he should get out more. Dad (Christian McKay) doesn’t really want to get drawn into any strife… John unwillingly goes to the local youth club, only to be dazzled by the dance moves that Matt (Josh Whitehouse) performs to the unusual soundtrack of Edwin Starr’s Time. Impulsively saving Matt from a beating John pretends he knows what Northern Soul is to spend more time with this charismatic outsider. Pretty soon John knows Northern Soul inside out, is going to amphetamine-fuelled Wigan Casino dances, and plotting a trip to America with Matt to ransack obscure vinyl for their DJ gigs.
Northern Soul is a familiar type of story told against an unusual backdrop. Matt is the dazzlingly charismatic hero who brings the diffident observer John out of his shell to the point that he stands up to abrasive teacher Mr Banks (Steve Coogan), winks at his crush Angela (Antonia Thomas) on the bus instead of pining away, and thinks nothing of popping the endless supply of pills that cockney Sean (Jack Gordon) thinks necessary for their Wigan nights. But the backdrop is something we’ve not seen before. Ray Henderson (James Lance) the Wigan DJ has enormous street-cred for his ‘cover-up’; a stonking tune that he refuses to reveal the identity of to his listeners; and the quest to unmask the cover-up fuels the rise of John as a DJ. Indeed he’s obviously a better DJ than the foul-mouthed graceless Matt.
Writer/director Elaine Constantine makes Northern Soul look fantastic for its budget, especially the long sweep over the dancers when we see the Wigan Casino bacchanalia for the first time. She also makes excellent use of a limited amount of classic Northern Soul music by playing out the songs in full over lengthy montages. At the same time she draws excellent performances from the actors. Gordon is on fire as the rambunctious Sean, Whitehouse is instantly attractive as rebellious Matt, and Langridge makes John’s transformation completely believable. Ultimately Northern Soul becomes a bromance, as Angela isn’t nearly as important, or worth a grand rom-com gesture, as Matt. Henderson pushes John away from Matt by insisting that Matt holds him back as a DJ, and Sean blames Matt’s big mouth for unwanted narc attention, leading to some unexpected suspense before the finale.
The story is just a bit familiar, but it’s told with such avowed sincerity that Northern Soul might just be a very belated Quadrophenia for the Northern Soul set.