Northern Soul

Issue section: 

Many of us grew up in a town like Burnsworth. “Burnsworth is a shithole”, says the graffiti put there by John, the main character, who moves from a no-hope school to a dead-end job with a grim inevitability.

But thanks to a chance encounter at the decidedly uncool school disco, he discovers Northern Soul and a new world of black music, dancing, record collecting and amphetamine fuelled all-nighters.

The director of this film, Elaine Constantine, has been a fan since the 1970s and, as a fashion photographer, has a keen eye for the look of the period. The soundtrack was released in advance and has been well received.

As a fan myself, the music was a major draw. Many of those eagerly anticipating the film will no doubt know every track, but if you are new to the genre there’s enough you might recognise and plenty to pique your interest to delve a bit deeper.

However, the film is a bit of a let down. It’s set in 1974 in Lancashire. This is the year of the three-day week and the defeat of the Tories. The miners, the same young men who were out on the dance floors by night, were striking.

The influence of the factories and football terraces is clearly stamped on the Northern Soul scene and can make it seem a very male affair. But women were also attracted by the music, the freedom and a sort of anti-consumerism that was reflected in the disdain for the charts and conventional fashions.

Young women workers were part of strikes in the car plants in Dagenham and the clothing factories in Leeds. They were there too, on the dance floors, challenging sexism. And, especially given that the director is female, I’d like to have seen more of them.

The film has fallen into the same trap as Soul Boy before it — it is predictable. Coming of age. Drugs. Token love interest. Check. Check. Check. It doesn’t communicate why people felt such a passion for the music.

Northern Soul has been criticised for being more about escape than resistance, but my own introduction to the music was rooted in those wider movements. And although the lyrics to the songs seem to be about love and hurt, they are also about freedom and possibility.

If you do nothing else, listen to “Time Will Pass You By” from Tobi Legend and read about some of the other artists who were influenced by the civil rights movement. The song weaves through the film and you can get a sense of how the music could not only feed your soul, but perhaps stir you to action too.

Life is just a precious minute baby
Open up your eyes and see it baby
Give yourself a better chance
Because time will pass you
Right on by.