Soulboy is a small gem of a movie. It’s a flawed gem because the opening is clunky but then the narrative gathers speed and with Martin Compston’s assured central performance it makes its way to an admittedly predictable resolution – but then this is basically a sweet little love story with an interesting background in one of the UK’s great subcultures.
The Potteries in 1974. Joe (Compston) is in a rut with a boring job as an assistant deliveryman and no luck on Saturday night in the Purple Onion, his locality’s excuse for a nightspot where his dancing fails to impress the girls. Spotting the glamorous Jane (Nichola Burley) in the street he tracks her down to her job in a hairdressers and asks for a cut. He gets a rather surprising cut and learns about a new dance culture in Wigan, ‘Northern Soul’. When he takes the coach to Wigan, Joe discovers that he has been missing out when he meets an ex-classmate and his younger sister Mandy (Felicity Jones). From here Joe will pursue Jane and be taught how to dance by Mandy while at the same time trying to avoid being dragged into trouble by his best mate (Alfie Alan) and avoiding Jane’s ‘protector’ and dancefloor dictator (Craig Parkinson). You can probably work out the rest from there.
There are many good things about this production – and a couple of problems. One of the plus points is the setting in Stoke-on-Trent. For readers outside the UK, Stoke is probably best known as the home of English chinaware and the film includes shots of decaying factories. Stoke is symbolic in many ways of an industrial area that has been ‘left behind’ and forgotten even when the larger industrial cities have been ‘regenerated’. (Stoke is midway between Birmingham and Manchester.) In the 1970s, social change seemed to reach such areas rather later so the emergence of Northern Soul was significant. The new dance craze started in Manchester at The Twisted Wheel and came to full prominence at the Wigan Casino with Blackpool Mecca and the Golden Torch in Stoke as other major venues.
Northern Soul is a popular dance culture which in its heyday attracted young working-class dancers in the North of England to all-night sessions dancing to relatively obscure American soul records from the hinterland of African-American music in the post-Tamla era. The soulboys and girls were often mods and brought with them and interest in fashion and pills rather than alcohol and in many ways introduced aspects of the club culture and rave scene that emerged later in the 1990s. Although all the original venues are long gone, Northern Soul lives on attracting new young fans and a hardcore of those who have been dancing for more than thirty years.
The film certainly attempts to capture the authenticity of the Northern Soul scene and the official website includes plenty of background material and information about the soundtrack and current live events around the UK. There are some interviews tacked onto the credits that feature original soulboys and girls from the 1970s who attest to the authenticity of the film and the popularity of the scene and the website material suggests that the producers tried hard to do justice to the scene. The dancehall location is in fact the current Stoke hall that hosts Northern Soul nights, but I suspect that it is smaller than the Wigan Casino. The film is a low budget independent and there isn’t really the camerawork and setting to do justice to the dancing. The director Shimmy Marcus has a track record in Irish independent cinema, including music documentary and comedy drama, but the writer Jeff Williams has no other credits on IMDB.
I feel that the love story is what works best in the film, not least because of Jones and Compston (I thought the whole cast was strong). The music was great and I thought the film introduced the Northern Soul phenomenon sympathetically without really convincing someone who didn’t know about it already. The worst aspects of the film were the Stoke-on-Trent tourist clip at the beginning – copy of the Full Monty opening and then the broadish comedy/crime stuff on the near-deserted streets of Staffordshire towns. I had terrible flashes of those 1970s British soft porn films like Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate (1978). Thankfully it soon settled down into something more interesting.
Here’s the official trailer (note that it says ‘Northern England’ – not sure how that will go down in the Potteries):
Isn’t the original version of ‘Tainted Love’ by Gloria Jones just wonderful?
There is a range of material on the film and its production on YouTube but here’s one of the many YouTube vids of the real thing (and another terrific track):
The film is being released in a very carefully selected pattern of specialised cinemas by Soda Pictures. It’s not the way to draw in the multiplex audience, but perhaps on reflection they are right. I suspect that the film will be most enjoyed as a nostalgic treat in which case its biggest sales will be on DVD.
– Now where’s that copy of Len Barry’s 1-2-3 that we danced to at Blackpool Mecca in 1965?