For my birthday my wife gave me the DVD of the film, Northern Soul (October 2014). It had come out some time before and I have delayed writing about it, but I wanted to correct that now.
As a northern boy, growing up in South Yorkshire in the 1970s, northern soul was part of the background fabric of life. As I’ve described in my story Freak or smoothy?, at that phase in my life I absolutely didn’t want to be seen as a ‘smoothy’, a soul boy; I wanted to be a freak, a rocker, a heavy metal fan. A deep cultural divide existed between the two cultural camps, marked by clothes as well as musical taste and dance styles, and contempt for the other was strong. Nonetheless, northern soul was part of our world, part of our identifiable northern-ness, part of the heritage of my youth.
Time softens prejudice and, with the elapse of forty years, I am more benign in my outlook to northern soul than I was in my righteous teens. I was keen to see the film; I was prepared to give the music a chance. Accordingly, I was very glad to receive the film as a birthday gift- and it repaid my hopes.
The film was directed by northern soul fan Elaine Constantine. In that respect, it’s a labour of love for her; a reminiscence about her own treasured teen memories. It tells the story of two Lancashire teenagers, Matt and John, whose lives are changed forever by the discovery of the northern soul genre and the dance culture that grew up around it in the north of England. Set in a grim Lancashire factory town in 1974, the narrative follows the pair as they leave behind a humdrum life of youth clubs and factory production lines to chase a dream of travelling to the US, unearthing unknown soul singles and establishing themselves as top DJs on the circuit. Their dance and amphetamine fuelled quest brings them into contact with some of the darker elements of the scene and tests their friendship to its limits.
If you were a teen at that time and in that place, there’s much that will resonate. The industrial town, the back to back terraces, the cars, the clothes, the furnishings, the streets, are all faithfully recreated and bring memories rushing back. These were the days when you could walk out of school with no qualifications and still walk into a job in a factory (albeit making sweets repetitively for eight hours a day). If, like me, you lived on the fringes of a culture that you never directly experienced, the film is a window opened upon a mystery from your youth: finally, I saw inside Wigan Casino, I saw the dances, heard the music, got a taste of the scene that kids at school used to talk about.
A few years ago I read Bill Brewster’s book Last night a DJ saved my life– this history of dance music gave me a framework for those scattered memories: all nighters at Wigan and Blackpool, Sunday all-day parties at Cleethorpes, Peter Stringfellow DJing at the King Mojo Club in Sheffield, Manchester’s Twisted Wheel. The film Northern Soul provided the illustrations and the soundtrack for that narrative. Highly recommended!
And, just as a taster, the sound track to the final titles: Turning my heartbeat up by the MVPs. A fantastic tune, this old rock fan is obliged to confess!
For fuller details of my writing on cinema, the arts and music, see my website.