Northern Soul disciple Mike Catto digs the tunes, but little else in this UK Indie outing
In contrast to what was perceived as soft southerners with their psychedelic love-in music, northern English kids at the fag-end of the Swinging Sixties developed their own special niche musical tastes linked to stylish – and amphetamine fuelled – dance spins and floor-drops.
Beginning, so they say, at The Twisted Wheel in Manchester but reaching its apogee around 1974 at the Wigan Casino, the phenomenon was called Northern Soul. Its musical heroes were US soul singers, sometimes from famous labels like Motown or Stax, but more frequently from obscure and short lived American labels like Topper and Shrine.
Less well known singers like Yvonne Baker and Nolan Porter were revered, and each club had record stalls selling US import singles at massive prices. The dancers had their own identity, marked out by tank vests, American bowling shirts and the all important hold-all/bowling bag embellished with the badges from other Northern Soul venues.
To be part of Northern Soul was to belong to a specialist coterie, and not only has the phenomenon survived (even if the Wigan Casino burned down in 1981) it is enjoying a huge revival today.
End of the Social History #101 bit, and so to the film review. SoulBoy is the debut feature written and directed by Shimmy Marcus and it is set in the Midlands of 1974. The story follows Joe McCain (Martin Compston), a young lad from Stoke who fancies a girl who is a Northern Soul addict, and through his initiation into that world, we, the audience learn about the must-do’s and no-no’s of the scene.
Joe, in turn is fancied by a girl who wants to go to art college and, for reasons that are vague, talks about Matisse and Degas. Oh, and there is also a sub-plot about an Irishman who is conscious that 1974 'is a bad time to be a Paddy in this country'.
Throw in a gormless mate (surely the original script outline must have said Rupert Grint on it), the evil boyfriend of the object of Joe’s love and a hippy record shop owner who becomes converted to Northern Soul and that’s what passes for the narrative drama.
Story-wise, SoulBoy is an amateur and utterly predictable offering. If it wanted to be Quadrophenia or Saturday Night Fever in the way that those films celebrated and elevated Mod and disco cultures respectively, it fails utterly. The 1974 roots are not in the storyline. Even Brendan, the Irishman, exits stage left half way through and the dance-off challenge at the end is bathetic.
What success there is in the film comes from the sound and the visuals. Noel Coward once said that, when a theatre critic praises the furniture on stage, the play itself was rotten.
So, let me praise the set design, the vintage 1974 clothes and the new ones (designed by Elvis Davis), the attention to detail in the recreation (in Sheffield) of Wigan Casino; the sweat, Old Spice and talcum powder galore. Above all, praise for the magnificent soundtrack of genuine Northern Soul hits.
British independent cinema can do much better than this, and the photographer Elaine Constantine, who has documented Northern Soul for many years, has her own film on the same subject coming out next year. As they say, watch this space.
SoulBoy runs at the Queen's Film Theatre from September 3-9.