Raygunesque #6: Northern Soul

Art & Culture

“If anyone can make a film about northern soul and make it work, then Elaine [Constantine] can.” So said a latter-day Northern Soul boy, one of the regulars at the 100 Club all-nighters, said to me. We had been discussing the seemingly never-ending search for the definitive fictional film about the homegrown genre that refuses to die.

I’d just ventured that I thought “they” – production companies, the British film industry and other types of that ilk – were going to keep on trying to make a northern soul film until they got it right. He’d said that Constantine’s film would be as close as it gets. 

Now, a few months down the line, her debut feature film, Northern Soul, is finished, released at cinemas and arriving on DVD, Blu-ray and other formats. 

And it looks like my mate was right. 

Constantine’s film is a tribute to a bygone era, a love letter to a youth cult that grew from nowhere – working class kids fuelled by chemicals dancing all night to obscure records – one of the last genuine phenomena that developed unfettered by the press and London-centric media. But it’s not just a paean to disaffected and alienated British youth dancing to weird, wonderful and hard to find records from black America. Northern Soul’s triumph is that it works as a proper film, with a proper plot. And, better still, it doesn’t take a heavy-handed moral tone. Oh and it makes you want to go out, take drugs and dance all night. There’s little praise higher than that. 

As I spoke to Constantine, teenage Northern Soul fan turned fashion photographer, and, now film director, Northern Soul was just about to arrive in cinemas and had become the biggest ever limited theatrical release film to come out in the UK, no mean feat, and was picking up plenty of interest across the country.

“I’m really pleased with the way it’s turned out,” she says. “It does seem to be picking up a head of steam.” 

It’s certainly a long way from scrabbling around trying to find financing. “None of us were expecting this,” explains Constantine. “Me and my producer Debbie (Gray) always thought it would be a hard sell, because we didn’t have two big leads, we had first timers, and we didn’t compromise with the script.”

The arduous process – at least one other film about the genre that refuses to die came and went in the years that Constantine and Gray were getting their own project off the ground – took years.

“It’s been a real learning curve, you pick up all this stuff as you go along.” Constantine says, “it was one massive hurdle after another.”

The reaction to the aforementioned other northern soul film, SoulBoy, from insiders and a wider audience, threw up its own problems, when it came to both getting vocal and financial support. “One of the main hurdles was SoulBoy had already been out, people thought it wasn’t representative and it hadn't done that well.”

After its inception, the project had begun life with dance clubs organised by Constantine, one near her north London home, the other just down the road from her old stamping ground in Bolton (Constantine fell in love with northern soul as a teenager growing up in Bury). 

“We started doing this dancing thing,” she explains, “trying to train dancers. We were worried about them going on to SoulBoy, but in the end, none of them defected.

“We got loads of young kids, they fell in love with the music, the culture. We started posting videos of them, dancing. A lot of people who’d said ‘not another one’ when they saw about our film, then said ‘this is brilliant, it reminds us of how we were’,  and they started to champion us.”

She’d already tapped in to old mates and the northern soul network while developing the script and feature, giving her the kind of input and insight that was, one could argue, lacking from SoulBoy. For a scene that is so often rooted in authenticity, Northern Soul has it in spades. 

“We have a massive peer group of people we could ask,” she explains. “We used to send the script out to them. It was more at that stage than any other. People would come back, saying ‘have you thought about this’? Once you’ve made it, they can like it or not like it.”

Where it succeeds is in getting those things right. Constantine and co’s roots in this world, where she still plays a very active part, were an integral part not just in getting it made, but in how it turned out. “If anyone approaches a youth culture movie – God I sound like an American – you have to get it right. It’s not about coming in and saying ‘what can I use as a vehicle, what can I take now?’

“You have to fucking love the music, you have to know about it, you have to speak to the right people, not the people whose names come up first on Google. I always think you should make films about something you know about. My first kind of radar is ‘is this real, is it authentic’? You’ve lost it if you don’t have that.”

It was that single-minded belief – as she says, what else was Constantine going to make a film about rather than something she’d immersed herself in for more than 30 years? – that drove the project on.

As time progressed, she says, “we kind of knew we had a strong following, not just friends, that really egged me on.”

Support is all well and good, but it doesn’t pay the bills and raising the necessary cash, despite a welter of public finding potentially available, was not easy. As Constantine says: “We were turned down by every public finding body, turned down everywhere for money.

“When you feel passionate, you’ve put so much into it, you love it, you can’t just give up, you’ve got to keep trying.”

Investors, many Northern Soul heads themselves, put their own life savings into the project, along with the likes of Constantine, who remortgaged her home. Even when the film had wrapped there were still problems – the post-production company going under, for starters. “We were still in a tricky position, we’re not quite clear yet,” she laughs. 

Project finished, it was down to getting a distributor and more interest, something soon solved when Universal, as big as it gets in film terms, signed up to the project. 

And the reaction to the film has made it all worthwhile. Where it succeeds for this writer, is in its lack of a hectoring, moral tone; the film works because there’s no judgement made – its protagonists do drugs, go out dancing, without ending up overdosing, getting nicked or facing the usual pitfalls that anyone taking drugs and raving encounters in films or TV. “A small amount of people fallen down,” Constantine notes, “but a lot have survived. People aren’t getting hammered, there’s no aggression there, it’s celebratory. You did get kids who did too many drugs, a few cranked up, but on the whole it was a brilliant experience.” She praises Gray’s work as a producer in ensuring that their vision of the the era – and beyond – wasn't weighed down with conventional studio morality. 

Northern Soul the film ties in neatly with talk of a northern revival. Constantine has spotted a new audience joining the existing faith-keepers.”I think there is a younger generation getting into it, it’s not just old fat blokes staring at a record player. The younger trendier ones will get a pub in Shoreditch, do a bit of a night.”

Still a regular face on the scene, along with her husband and old pals, many of whom were involved at some stage in the film, she breaks down today’s Northern Soul fans into to crowds – those still searching out new records, making new discoveries, still driving it forward and another type, who have gone back to it after maybe having kids, who are happy to hear the old hits churned out again. She straddles both camps and those two different worlds are well represented on the film’s accompanying soundtrack, which not only features songs in the film and has plenty of old favourites, but looks at other recent discoveries and elements moving northern soul forward. (The soundtrack, incidentally, is also available as a rather nifty box set of seven inch singles, offering up a ready-made Northern Soul primer pack.)

And what’s her favourite? “You know what it’s like with music, it’s dependent on what kind of mood I’m in and it’s never the same record. My all time favourite record ever ever? Lou Pride’s I’m Coming Home In The Morning. But there are so many favourites – I could listen Gerri Grainger’s I Go To Pieces when I feel really emotional, when I want to sob and listen to something like Williams and Watson Too Late and feel really fired up.”

Meanwhile, the film has built up a nice head of steam and looks set to pay back the investment – and, crucially for a northern soul film, faith – they’ve made and shown. “We knew we had a northern soul following. we knew they would want to see that, but it’s gone beyond that, gone beyond the core audience,” she concludes. “We’ve got all these screenings being added because they’e full, it’s quite amazing. 

“With the amount of events I attend, we thought there’s a limit to how many people will come out at the weekend for the film, but there seems to be such a momentum to this. These people telling all their mates and they’re all telling all their mates.”

Northern Soul is playing at various cinemas across the UK now and is also available on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal. The soundtrack is available on CD and as a super-limited edition seven inch vinyl box set from Harmless.