Movie Review: “Northern Soul” is tone deaf

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“Northern Soul”was fad, a movement, that came just after the Mods and Psychedelia, concurrent with Glam Rock and just before Disco and Punk among  those music mad Brits.

It got people in the north and Midlands of England back on the dance floor, listening to obscure African American soul music in the ugly fashions of the early ’70s. And as they did, many of them got deeper into the pills that replaced most of the popular drugs of the ’60s.

Photographer turned writer-director Elaine Constantine tries to give it a sort of “Commitments” meets “24 Hour Party People” treatment in her film of the same title, a movie that vividly recaptures a time and place — with the odd stand-out anachronism.

But in trying to get the music to “sound” the way it did then, pre-hi fi 45rpm records heard through Stone Age speakers and gear, she wastes every single pence the picture spent on music rights. No, we weren’t listening to amplified mud, dear.

And robbing the story of the hook, the actual sounds that young fans grabbed and turned into a lifestyle and movement, gives us a movie that’s basically without music or the romance of it, and without a whiff of the last gasp of pre-punk/pre-Thatcher joy.

Elliot James Langridge plays an anti-social schoolboy whose parents (Lisa Stansfield and Christian McKay) nag him into attending an after school youth club. He doesn’t necessarily fit in there, either. But the music by local DJ Ray (James Lance) puts him in a trance. He dances by himself.

And when he later meets fellow enthusiast Matt (Josh Whitehouse), John finds his entre to “cool” (Matt gives him a fashion makeover) and deep fandom. It’s all about haunting record stores and street bazaars, hunting for soul that nobody else has heard.

That’s their ticket for doing their own DJing. The goal? To fly to America together to REALLY dig into obscure soul music at its source.

John fancies the cute slightly older nurse (Antonia Thomas) he sees on the bus each day. What he doesn’t fancy is the oppressive school and his tuned-out teacher (Steve Coogan, of “24 Hour Party People”).

And what Matt fancies are drugs that he listens to the music to.

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The rest of the movie is about their unequal partnership and its shifting dynamics, their rise to DJing paid dances, their growing circle of drug-abusing pals, and their fall.

The performances are energetic but downcast. The dialect is as unfathomable as the music, although I did catch Frankie Valli’s name in the introduction of a song. Edwin Starr to Leo Sayer, Shirley Ellis to The Velvets, the soundtrack (what you can make out of it) ties the film to this generation’s obsession, not unlike the earlier Beatles/Stones generation Brits brought to its deep dives into The Blues.

Whatever its virtues (Tattoos were NOT on every torso back then, especially in the Midlands.), one can’t take much more from “Northern Soul” than a moving snapshot, a color scheme. Because “Soul” is the big thing lacking in Elaine Constantine’s one and only shot at making a feature film.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for drug use, language throughout and brief sexuality

Cast:Elliot James Langridge, Josh Whitehouse, Antonia Thomas, James Lance, Christian McKay and Steve Coogan.

Credits Written and directed by Elaine Constantine: A Freestyle release.

Running time: 1:42

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