Film Review – Northern Soul



Northern Soul is a little film by director Elaine Constantine that came and went without so much as a whisper. Released in the UK in 2014, Northern Soul debuted in North America at TIFF in September 2015 and opened to a limited release in October, disappearing the following week.

In as much as the plot was formulaic, Northern Soul the film mostly flew under the mainstream radar because so few people (especially in North America) know what Northern Soul music actually is.

Northern Soul grew out of Mod, separated from its skinhead twin in style and sound but with much of the same working class attitude. In the wake of Motown and other successful US R&B labels of the 1960s, many smaller, much more obscure labels began recording, pressing extremely limited quantities of discs by artists who would, for the most part, remain unknown. In northern England in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while everyone else was listening to prog rock, pub bands and more psychedelic-oriented mainstream rock, working class kids in the north were listening to soul music, competing to find the most rare and obscure titles. DJs would travel to the US specifically to comb record stores to find even more rare discs.

While the scene was huge within the northern parts of England (Manchester, Lancashire, parts of Scotland and Wales) it was mostly unknown elsewhere, and remained so even after more mainstream bands like Soft Cell covered obscure Northern Soul tracks like “Tainted Love” in the 1980s.

In the film, an introverted misfit, John (played by Elliot James Langridge) attends a dance at a youth centre where he meets Matt (Joshua Whitehouse) who schools him in the music and style of the Northern Soul scene. John is a quick convert, especially to the drug use prevalent in the sub-culture, and garbage bags full of pills feature throughout the film as the boys get deeper into the music, aspiring to become DJs themselves, and begin associating with some inscrutable characters that ultimately cause their lives and dreams to come crashing down.

Constantine’s plot is simple and unchallenging, the stuff of buddy movies for time immemorial. Characters are often flat and cliched, the only woman of interest is Angela (Antonia Thomas), a black nurse who frequents the Northern Soul nights, and whom John has a crush on, barring of course John’s harpy mother played by Lisa Stansfield. (I’m being facetious… John’s Mom is so one-dimensional, she should have been a cartoon.)

The film is not without merit, however, because the hook of it all is how accurately it portrays the scene and its style – a tribe that still exists, possibly bigger than ever, almost 50 years on. That’s right, Northern Soul never went away – there are club nights still playing these records, and websites dedicated to supplying kit, from the eponymous badges and bags to baggy pants and circle skirts – the loose flowing clothing embraced by dancers in the sweltering heat of the dance floors.

Northern Soul the movie is a decent film to view if you’re looking for something fun and light-hearted. It’s not the most captivating film you’ll ever watch, but for music history buffs, or anyone interested in indie tribes and sub-cultures, the setting, music, dancing and fashion makes it worth checking out.

This article originally appeared on Still Weird Zine.