Photographer Elaine Constantine’s first feature film, Northern Soul shows her passion and interest in the eponymous musical movement successfully, serving as a perfect homage to the high energy, ever changing rhythm and soulful blues we associate with the revolutionary British movement. With no star leads and a low budget, Constantine’s film has still managed to gain a place within the UK top ten at the box office, surpassing in earnings the similar themed film SoulBoy which premiered four years prior and with a more notable cast. But this is what makes Northern Soul such a hit. The film’slesser known stars are more believable in the roles they play; besides helping to convey the 1970’s period feel to a modern day audience, their everyman appearance making them more relatable. That is not to say that there are no stars in the feature; Steve Coogan (who also produced the film), singer Lisa Stansfield and Ricky Tomlinson all have cameos, injecting some star quality. While their scenes are underplayed by Constantine, keeping the focus on the story rather than the stars, these high profile guest appearances are highly entertaining and touching; the humanity of their characters shines through. The best of these star turns is Tomlinson’s portrayal of the grandfather, whose tragic elderly fragility, handing his grandson a crumpled note while leaning out of breath on his walking stick, is a touchingly familiar gesture.
Focusing on the evolving friendship of two young men living in 1974 Lancashire, the film explores both their and the country’s transformation during the heart of the northern soul movement. High school dropout John (Elliot James Langridge) is a poetry writing recluse, whose life is given purpose when he meets wannabe DJ Matt (Josh Whitehouse). Matt introduces him to the Northern Soul movement and carefree lifestyle that accompanies it. As a genre film it doesn’t feel restrictive the comedy is equally matched by tragedy and the music counterbalances the silences and provocative dialogues. While quite obviously a period piece, the feel, fashion, and music of the time doesn’t seem inaccessible; on the contrary, the characters and themes are not dated by their pop cultural references. Mediating the nihilism of the post-war generation, the characters’ love of American Soul and Blues, transported from across the Atlantic, reflects the likeminded sense of meaninglessness that haunted a generation and is, arguably, still felt today. However, there is a deeply pleasing human warmth to Northern Soul. The characters, though human in their flaws, are still likable and the leads’ performances capture the emotional flux, the freedom of the movement as well as the restrictions of the time.
Constantine’s passion for Northern Soul is made all the more real/visceral as she attempts to translate the spirit of American Soul and Blues from a musical medium to film. In doing so, she matches the erratic rhythm of the genre, creating an uneven pace: at times, the film flows perfectly and at others it stops dead, giving a raw, realistic edge. The emotional highs and lows of the characters shows in the music: someone’s grief echoes in a low trumpet, while their joy mimics a clarinet dancing at a higher tone. Northern Soul has a whole orchestra of emotion.
Yes, Constantine’s film has some flaws. The emotional intensity is sometimes too melodramatic and borders on a soap opera. But on the whole, this strategy works. Writing about a movement as intense and transformative as Northern Soul, Constantine has to push emotions to the maximum. American Soul and Blues is the essence of emotional intensity, and of meaning at a time when nihilism threatened a generation. On the whole, Northern Soul is the film equivalent of the 1970’s movement which, thanks to Constantine, is now available to a whole new generation.