In the late 1960s a new music and dance movement emerged out of the mod scene in northern England, the Midlands and parts of Wales and Scotland. Dubbed ‘northern soul’ because northern English football fans were buying particularly obscure American soul singles on their trips to London, most of the scene’s important dance clubs were located in the north-west of England, and it proved to be so popular that some of these venues remained packed every weekend right through to the early 1980s, with revellers travelling from afar to experience the unique all-night atmospheres. The likes of Manchester’s Twisted Wheel and the famous Wigan Casino were the clubs with the highest profiles, though the scene flourished for years without ever becoming commercialised and without attracting much interest from a media obsessed with glam rock and, later, punk. Northern soul fans championed scores of unheralded American artists that were influenced by the Motown sound (though the more popular Motown hits themselves were largely ignored) and record stands in the clubs sold hard-to-find gems by the likes of The Steve Karmen Big Band, Al Wilson, Gloria Jones, Jimmy Radcliffe and The Marvelettes. Meanwhile the DJs with the best and most obscure sounds were worshipped like pop stars, and many would go on to be key figures in the music industry in the UK.
With northern soul the style of dancing was a key element: the music was fast and uptempo, and the moves on the dancefloor reflected this, becoming ever more athletic as the years wore on. High kicks, spins, drops and flips were the order of the day, and interestingly many similar moves would later surface in both disco dancing and breakdancing. The sweaty all-night club sessions also dictated the attire of northern soul fans: the tighter, sharper suits favoured by the mods gave way to loose-fitting clothes that allowed for more freedom of movement, such as high-waisted baggy Oxford trousers and vests, while club-goers would rarely be without essential accessories like talcum powder (which was thrown on the floor before dancing to help dancers to glide across the surface).
This film by Shimmy Marcus – at times a fairly bland and predictable love story, at others an energetic clubland comedy-drama – attempts to recreate the early-ish days of the northern soul scene as well as the sense of boredom and the bleak outlook faced by unqualified school-leavers in the early 1970s. Highlighting the need at the time for such musical escapism, it is mainly set in the towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent (and filmed entirely on location in that area), and Marcus manages to capture the sense of euphoria associated with clubbing as well as in any film since Human Traffic, and will no doubt leave old soul fans misty-eyed with its portrayal of the scene.
The likeable Martin Compston plays a teenager named Joe with an uninspiring 9-5 job delivering potatoes; his weekends revolve around a dreary looking pub called the Purple Onion until he stumbles by chance upon the northern soul scene when he follows hairdresser Jane (Nichola Burley) into a local record store … and then on to Wigan. Amid all the dancing and the pining that follows there’s lightweight and unobtrusive support from pre-Game Of Thrones Alfie Allen, playing Joe’s best friend Russ, Pat Shortt as Joe’s colleague Brendan, and Felicity Jones as Mandy, the ‘invisible other girl’ who seeks the leading man’s attention. There are also cameos for Huey Morgan, DJ and singer with the act Fun Lovin’ Criminals – don’t give up the day job, Huey – and Bruce Jones, better known to UK readers as Coronation Street’s Les Battersby.
Despite some of the characters offering light relief, Marcus and writer Jeff Williams also attempt to inject some gritty drama into the film with a couple of sub-plots: one kind of revolves around the drugs scene at the Wigan Casino (Craig Parkinson, a reliably impressive supporting actor who has appeared in Control, Brighton Rock and Four Lions, plays ace face / dealer Alan with menace) and the other focuses on a local chip shop owner’s abusive relationship with his wife (Brian McCardie and Jo Hartley, whose performances clash when McCardie is required to ham-it-up in the pantomime villain tradition).
There’s a commitment to balancing humour and blossoming romance with the darker side of life in SoulBoy, but unfortunately it does at times feel very studied, perhaps even forced; all black-and-white with no shades of grey in between. The ‘bad’ characters are utterly unsympathetic, the ‘good’ characters shown almost entirely in a positive light, although the interesting exception is Joe himself: ostensibly the hero of the piece, we’re first introduced to him as he robs items of clothing and jewellery from a lock-up, though even this is legitimised somewhat by the fact that the man Joe is stealing from is a wife-beating bully.
The film only really explodes into life during the largely excellent scenes filmed at the re-created Wigan Casino (the original club was closed down in 1981 and later bulldozed to make way for a shopping arcade, so a venue in Stoke was used for the purposes of this film). The slow-mo moves of the dancers look great, and the extras – presumably those who ‘keep the faith’ with regard to northern soul today – do a tremendous job in helping to stage a typical 1970s soul all-nighter. Presumably these were filmed during the day, but it’s utterly convincing as a snapshot of a sweaty, amphetamine-fuelled club at 4 or 5 in the morning. Compston’s Joe doesn’t really experience a fabled ‘hallelujah’ moment, though, and instead he develops a love-hate relationship with the Casino and the scene in general: he is wise enough to sense that something special is happening, but his own dancing limitations and the antics of Russ hold him back from becoming one of the key faces. Joe repeatedly leaves the club (in fear, in anger and in embarrassment before he is eventually thrown out by the staff), but he keeps on returning, unable to let it slip out of his life, and by the end he has practiced enough for the inevitable dance-off against Alan.
Just over a decade ago a director named Justin McArdle made an enjoyable short called Function At The Junction, a 17-minute film that centred around a dance-off at a northern soul club in the 1970s. Concise and to the point, Function At The Junction manages to successfully establish the same sense of excitement around northern soul as SoulBoy while the earlier short’s dance off – a competition that the promoters attempt to rig – is a tad more enjoyable. Similar themes and soundtrack choices mean it’s likely that Marcus watched Function At The Junction at some point, and while watching SoulBoy it’s hard to shake the feeling that McArdle got there first and was more concise, although Marcus has more time in which to develop his characters and keep other threads going. (A new film about the scene by Elaine Constantine, Northern Soul, was recently released in the UK with some success.)
Ultimately, while Marcus’s film is at times enjoyable, it’s a relatively straightforward exercise in coming-of-age nostalgia that is always moving towards an obvious, and very predictable, conclusion. The problem lies perhaps with the romance contained in Jeff Williams’ screenplay, the main crux of which will be way too familiar to the majority of film fans, though in fairness the darker side to the writer’s story almost makes up for it. Still, Compston is a likeable star, there’s plenty of energy in the dancehall scenes and the director does justice to the northern soul legacy, no doubt pleasing the legion of fans that have waited decades to see their youth enshrined in such a way.
Directed by: Shimmy Marcus
Written by: Jeff Williams
Starring: Martin Compston, Felicity Jones, Nichola Burley, Alfie Allen
Running Time: 82 minutes