Elaine Constantine’s directorial debut moves to a familiar beat. It is a coming-of-age tale where the protagonist, John (Elliot James Langridge), goes from awkward outcast to inadvertently becoming the new trend setter with all the trademark ups and downs that one would expect from the genre. However, even when gyrating on the dance floor of convention, Constantine’s film still manages to win over audiences with the same infectious spirit that is found within the music her characters obsess over.
Set in dreary Lancashire, England in 1974, Northern Soul examines the way in which American soul music impacted a community and inspired a generation. John is a typical working-class teen who cannot seem to get any respect from his parents or his teacher (Steve Coogan). Frequently bullied at school and too shy to talk to the cute girl on the bus, Angela (Antonia Thomas), it is a wonder that John even makes it out of bed each day. It is only when John meets Matt (Josh Whitehouse), a music loving rebel who aspires to be a deejay, that his life beings to take a turn for the better. Introducing John to the sweet sounds of black soul music from the States, Matt and John quickly become an inseparable duo.
As the pairs love for the music slowly begins to infect others in their youth club, prompting them to host their own club nights, their days and nights become consumed with American soul. Soon the teens are the toast of the underground scene with visions of travelling to America, to bring back more soul music, dancing in their heads. However, when amphetamines and egos begin to clash, John must decide whether Matt’s friendship is really worth jeopardizing his potential future.
An unabashed love letter to soul music, Constantine originally toyed with the idea of doing a documentary rather than a narrative film. While audiences will never know what could have been, the film’s hip-shaking soundtrack suggests it would have been something special. Northern Soul is a film where the music is truly the star. Constantine effectively captures that moment in everyone’s teenage years when music is the only voice that makes sense, a time when a song lyric seems to speak directly to us in a way that our parents, teachers, and at times, our close friends cannot. As John grows more passionate and intrigued by the music, so does the audience.
Where Northern Soul takes a few missteps is in how it attempts to create the drama around the music. Though the story is engaging enough, it never breaks free of its conventional packaging. Similar to the length of time it takes John to work up the courage to make his move on Angela, the film occasionally waltzes when it should really be jiving. This is especially evident in the last act when Constantine struggles to figure out how to pull the loose threads together.
Northern Soul may not offer the emotionally gripping insight into the culture that some might hope, but there is enough in here to charm audiences while they tap their feet to the soundtrack.