The working-class “Northern Soul” milieu of England’s 1970s, which seeded much of U.K. music and culture, is recreated in Elaine Constantine’s long-aborning first feature. Her slender story about a few young lives dancing and drugging in step with the times just about glues pic together without quite making it memorable. But the convincing atmosphere, performances and soundtrack of vintage Yank R&B obscurities make this an enjoyable throwback to a scene whose influence if not its fame eventually traveled far. A modest sleeper success in its British run last year, it opens limited in the U.S. on Oct. 2, with prospects for further niche theatrical release in other markets; home format sales should extend a bit further.
In 1974 Manchester, things are bleak. Flower Power has wilted, punk is still a long ways off and English miserabilism pervades the gritty urban landscape. Doing his best to embody it is teenager John (Elliot James Langridge), an unhappy only-child who’s considered a social misfit even by his parents (Christian McKay, Lisa Stansfield). When they goad him into checking out the local youth center, he is impressed by the bluster and flash dance moves of hitherto unmet schoolmate Matt (Joshua Whitehouse), seemingly the area’s only evangelist for Northern Soul, a late-’60s-born regional fetishization of American soul sides, the more obscure the better. (Motown is way too populist for these fanatics.)
After being introduced to the music and to amphetamines simultaneously, with an accompanying personal style makeover, John becomes Matt’s fellow proselytizer. They succeed in converting some local youths to the cause, though spinning records at the youth center is too small a gig to suit Matt’s ambitions — or his ego — for very long.
Soon John has dropped out of school (where Steve Coogan has a few scenes as a tart-tongued prof), picked up a factory job and moved in with Matt, whose elder brother conveniently gets shipped off to prison for being too free with the pharmaceuticals. Even more of a dealer is their new older friend and coworker Sean (Jack Gordon), a wild man who leads them straight onto the dance floor of leading Northern Soul deejay Ray Henderson (James Lance). As the younger lads scheme to open their own club — while theoretically saving money for a trip to the presumed mecca of America — John actually wins Henderson’s professional patronage. But that benefactor is far less keen on Matt, whose big mouth continually stirs trouble, making it all too easy for police to shadow every move their drug-addled clique makes.
Storywise, “Northern Soul” is credible but a little too humbly scaled, hanging mostly on the fallings in and out between the two lead protagonists. The only woman in the mix, Antonia Thomas’ slightly older black nurse Angela, is defined solely in terms of John’s bashful attraction towards her. We’re intrigued by his discordant family situation, and by Matt’s own odd domestic history, but those aspects go unexplored; Sean aside, other peer supporting figures simply fade into the crowd.
Still, if “Soul’s” script errs on the side of simplicity, it does effectively downplay the cliches inherent in its unambitious story arc. And the foregrounded local culture is always engaging, with meticulous but unshowy attention to period detail on all levels. (The filmmakers actually ran a dance-school program with some 500 eventual enrollees in order to have extras accurately ape the distinctive shuffle-footed, stiff-torsoed Northern Soul dance style, with its occasional flourishes of proto-breakdancing gymnastics on all fours.)
Younger thesps are mostly big-screen newcomers, and they form an engaging, charismatic ensemble. Tech/design contributions focus on rugged authenticity, while the soundtrack is a goldmine of cuts by such largely forgotten acts as Barry Blue, the Salvadors, the Velvettes, Sam Dees and Luther Ingram Orchestra.