A decade in the works, Elaine Constantine’s debut feature-length film Northern Soul is finally being released. The Lancashire, U.K.-raised fashion photographer made her name in the ’90s documenting youth subcultures for magazines such as The Face and Vogue, before going on to direct a clutch of pop videos, commercials and a short film, Cold Water. There’s nothing glossy about Northern Soul, a gritty but inspiring bildungsroman about the profound personal transformation young John (Elliot James Langridge) undergoes after hearing Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons’ “The Night” playing in the youth club of his fictional industrial North hometown, Burnsworth.
The film is a joyous ode to Britain’s Northern Soul movement during its 1960s heyday; a subculture driven by regional youths and DJs who donned wide trousers, went on obsessive crate-digging quests for obscure U.S. soul 7-inches pressed the previous decade, and inked the names of their favorite record labels — Ric-Tic, Cameo-Parkway, Wand — into their skin. Constantine lovingly captures the rambunctious, amphetamine-fueled dances at which working class bodies shook off the drudgery of their tedious factory jobs on the ballroom floor (older heads will chuckle in recognition at the scene where a speed-fueled John sweats away practicing moves in his bedroom, the carpet beneath his feet worn threadbare). The dangerous side of the scene — illegal amphetamines, paranoid drug dealers, undercover coppers — provides an edgy undertow to John’s story, but what endures is the heartwarming power of Northern Soul‘s communal revelry, mined directly from Constantine’s own formative experiences on the scene.
Northern Soul launches in U.K. cinemas today, and is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital HD from October 20. Wondering Sound spoke with Constantine about her film’s long gestation, dance music as liberation and female representation in the “boys’ club” of Northern Soul.
Northern Soul is your debut full-length film. How long has it been in the works?
I had the idea about 17 years ago, but it’s been [in motion] for the last 10 years. It’s had a much bigger response than I imagined. I thought it’d be a small release, but Northern Soul fans have been busy petitioning cinemas to make sure they get screenings in their hometowns.
In what ways are your experiences with Northern Soul similar to that of the film’s protagonist, John?
Everything in that film happened to someone I know. Not all at the same time, and not all in the same way, but I’ve seen it all — including the fights. That youth club moment is the same thing I experienced. I wasn’t an avid collector like John, and I was too wimpy to get a tattoo — especially the homemade ones. When John is prodding away at his arm in the exam scene with the Indian ink and compass, writing “SOUL” on his arm — that was what my husband was doing.
Why use a character, rather than drawing on your own story?
I’m not old enough to have been right in the eye of the storm. My hope was to tell the quintessential story of Northern Soul, so using a character meant I could do that.
Women feature on the records and on the dance floors, but the DJs, promoters and local heroes are all male. Was it a boys’ club? In the record shop scene, where John and bestie Matt chat to love interest Angie and her friend, Matt is playfully patronizing, telling the girls to move out the way, that Northern Soul is “serious music”…
… and they just really put him down, yeah. That’s Northern interaction as I remember it, growing up. The thing about Northern Soul was [that] men were driving the scene. It was all about obsessively collecting rare vinyl, and collecting is such a male thing. You had a lot of women who adored dancing and music, but they weren’t necessarily the promoters, DJs, collectors or drug dealers. There was one notable female promoter in Cleethorpes who ran a big night in the mid ’70s. I don’t remember her name, though. I came through in the ’80s, so I was a bit younger than the Wigan Casino crowd. More women have come out as time has gone on, but back then it wasn’t commonplace.
Tracey Thorn penned a piece for the New Statesman earlier this year on how women’s participation in the scene have been historically underrepresented. Did you consider addressing that imbalance in your film?
It’s not a scene that is self-consciously sexist, but it was a scene driven by collectors who happened to be mostly male. People say to me, “Why didn’t you do it about a woman?” Well, making a woman a protagonist in the mid ’70s when that really wasn’t going on would’ve been difficult.
In one scene, Angie talks briefly about being a minority as person of color in the culture. Was acknowledging that aspect of the culture important to you?
Yeah. It was a very white scene — but that was a geographic thing. The north was very white back then. There were only two black families in my town [Bury], and my town was huge. When you went to an all-nighter you wouldn’t see a lot of black faces.
What was it that these white teens from the industrial North were hearing in black, American soul music? Why did it resonate so deeply with them?
A lot of people say it was connecting to the black power aspect of the civil rights movement, but I don’t feel that way. Northern Soul was an underground movement, and it took a strong hold in places like Manchester, Cleethorpes and Wigan because those were big, industrial towns with huge ballrooms that were available for hire. You could go all over the country and find an all-nighter — Scotland, Devon, Norfolk, Suffolk, northeast, northwest, Wales. It was everywhere apart from London, where the press pushed current releases. Flower power and hippie culture was taking hold there, and a lot of working class kids weren’t interested in that. They did dirty jobs and they didn’t want to dress down at the weekend — they wanted to dress up. A bit like the mod scene, really. They wanted to look sharp and clean.
There’s a strong contrast between the restrictive, binary definitions of masculinity taught at John’s school, where poetry is for “poofs,” and the expressive, emotional freedom that the music encouraged. Was Northern Soul liberating for young men?
Yeah, definitely. I think that’s what appealed to me — it was compelling watching these tough lads from school suddenly on the dance floor doing spins and kicks, and really feeling those heartfelt lyrics. In a way, that’s what appealed to me about making the film too.
The film is rich in detail, especially the dance scenes. How did you bring that sense of authenticity to the film?
We ran into trouble because initially both the actors and the extras couldn’t do the moves, so we started these dance sessions up. The deal was, anyone between 16 and 25 could come, we’d teach them about the music and the dance, and in return we’d give them a part in the film. Everyone who went through that journey with us ended up in the film. We begged and borrowed to find rehearsal rooms in pubs and stuff — it wasn’t like [U.K. reality show] Pineapple Dance Studios. We invited all my peers, so the kids could see different styles and take what they liked and do it their way instead of doing a choreographed line dance.
Northern Soul veteran Paul Mason says the movement was originally a rejection of the “stale, commercialized, samey and exploitative” ’70s disco scene, and likens this to the frustrations young people have today at EDM. Does that ring true?
I think so. Not all of the young kids from the classes stayed with it, but the ones who did fell in love with Northern Soul. You don’t get drunks spilling drinks on the dance floor or trying to get off with you — you just got people united in getting into the music en masse.
Digital technology has allowed fans to share rare, forgotten records online, while viral phenomena like Northern Soul Girl have encouraged this sense of revival. Is there more to this renewed interest than nostalgia, and what does it say about the times we’re living in now?
There was an awful lot of publicity last year because it was the 40th anniversary of Wigan Casino. And then you had the [BBC] Culture Show thing with Paul Mason which half a million people tuned in to. People have passed the music on to their kids too, and young people are getting into vinyl now, so maybe that’s part of it. That Pharrell track “Happy” is really similar to Northern Soul rhythms — it’s got the same beat — so it shows it’s not so old-fashioned that it can’t appeal to a younger generation. I just feel really lucky to have made this film.