Northern Soul full movie review - England in the 70s
I've often reflected that English film making hasn't done enough to explore the English experience (compared for example to American reflexiveness in film which has been ongoi
ng part of US cinema since the start), so I find films which look at England's cultural and social experiences with a little bit of favorable bias, and find in this film, about a phenomena probably little known outside of the UK something quite welcoming. Northern Soul, for anyone unfamiliar was a dance/party movement based on obscure American soul music which appeared in Manchester (among other places) in the late 1960s and who's preference, unlike the tastes of the capitol, tended towards lesser known soul music, often of a more up-tempo character. Wikipedia reports that the relative rarity of these soul sounds(as opposed to mainstream, commercially viable Motown sound) made for an environment where a single DJ might have the only pressing of a certain track. The best songs were naturally coveted and DJs might even travel to the US in search of new songs to bring to the dance floor. An entire subculture of music, dance and fashion emerge out of this milieu. That said, this film isn't a documentary and doesn't pretend to be. The story follows the friendship of two disaffected youth as they emerge deeper into and discover themselves through a nascent musical culture. For one of them it's a path of self-destruction and for the other self awakening. Gritty in its realism, Northern Soul embraces a darker side of English working-class society and views the movement, perhaps not unfairly as a respite from the malaise of urban-industrial England in the 1970s. That it occasionally overplays the meme is an evident enough fault and puts the main characters into transformations of identity that aren't always fully convincing (Steve Coogan plays a particularly loathsome secondary school teacher well, if not to slight excess). Matt, one of the film's protagonists transforms rather quickly from enthusiastic teen to angry firebrand in a not entirely nuanced way. We see this again in the ending who's glib tidiness is slightly out of tune with the film as a whole. The presence of drugs as antidote to social malaise comes as no surprise, and inevitably there is tragedy. Northern Soul does at times play that hand also a bit strongly, even as the music recedes into a background role to the more sobering realities in the front. The devolution from euphoria to dystopia where drugs become involved is not a new idea in cinema (or elsewhere) and it's truth is no less evident here. Still, the film is convincingly realized with terrific performances and tight, thematically consistent cinematography that never releases the viewer from a sense that the the straitjacket has yet to be loosed - something that music alone is incapable of doing. The music, the dance and the sheer expressiveness of the club scene provide balance and give the viewer a glimpse into the scene, a kind of English Saturday Night Fever. Enjoyable but not without faults, this is a great look at a time and place and tells a story that needs to be told.