Northern Soul, the Mod-inflected, disco-anticipating dance-music subculture that flourished in Blighty in the mid-1970s, provides the colorful setting for the enjoyably adequate romantic comedy “SoulBoy.” Scribe Jeff Williams’ boy-meets-two-girls setup is strictly boilerplate, but first-timer Shimmy Marcus’ energetic helming, a winning lead perf from Martin Compston and a proper reverence for the milieu depicted keep pic afloat. Presence of Nichola Burley (from recent megahit “StreetDance”) could rep a further selling point in the U.K., but the decidedly slight “SoulBoy” will need some nifty marketing moves to make an impact even on the domestic dance floor.
It’s 1974, and in the English city of Stoke-on-Trent, there’s not a lot (or “nowt,” as they say in these parts) for a young delivery boy like Joe McCain (Compston) to do, apart from going to the pub with his mates. But when Joe is instantly besotted by blonde looker Jane (Burley), a hairdresser with a taste for the burgeoning rare-soul-music scene, he’ll do anything to get her attention. That includes taking a bus some 50 miles north on a Friday night to dance at the Wigan Casino, a shabby dance hall that history would come to recognize as one of the key flashpoints of the Northern Soul movement, if not its epicenter.
Although the original Casino itself — dubbed “the best disco in the world” by Billboard magazine in 1978 — exists no more, great pains were reportedly taken to ensure a faithful re-creation of the venue’s no-frills glamour, while scores of Northern Soul fans are on hand as extras to strut the right kind of funky stuff. Result is extremely convincing and evokes the scene’s vitality, paying special deference to the fashions, the distinctive, proto-breakdancing spins and drops that were the hallmarks of Northern Soul dance style, and above all, the music.
What a shame that a similar level of attention to detail wasn’t devoted to the screenplay. The main plot — which sees Joe failing to spot until the last 20 minutes that pretty brunette Mandy (Felicity Jones) is really the right girl for him, not shallow Jane — is dully predictable but at least functional for the setting. A subplot about Joe’s Irish colleague Brendan (Pat Shortt) and his courtship of a shy fish-shop employee (Jo Hartley), however, feels entirely unnecessary.
With a grin that could charm paint off a wall, Compston reps the pic’s secret weapon. It helps that he has the right physical dexterity for the part (he was, after all, bent on becoming a soccer player before Ken Loach cast him in “Sweet Sixteen”), allowing him to bust some very convincing moves. Jones is very likable as his love interest, but Burley’s character is too underwritten to capitalize properly on the ingenue’s recent reknown.
HD lensing by Vladimir Trivic is serviceable but errs perhaps too much on the side of grit rather than glitz. Low budget is too detectable at times (such as when there are no more than two vintage vehicles in a street scene), while some of the wigs are atrociously unconvincing, especially on longer-haired males.