John (Elliot James Langridge) is considered by his family and those in his Lancashire neighbourhood to be a bit of a reclusive oddball. When his mother convinces him to go to a youth club to try and make some friends, John becomes fascinated with Matt (Josh Whitehouse), his music taste and his dance moves. The pair become fast friends, and dream of going to America to procure records that no-one in England has ever heard.
Remember that fantastic video for Moloko’s Familiar Feeling? The one where Paddy Considine donned his flares and showed the world he could throw some Northern Soul moves like the best of them? Well that was directed by Northern Soul’s helmer Elaine Constantine and, it could be argued, is a more succinct and clearer version of whatever the heck is going on in this film.
The film starts well enough, with John struggling to find friends and interests in the world on 1974 Lancashire; who can blame him? Once he actually gets into the Northern Soul scene, however, everything goes to hell. Montages show an unspecified amount of time passing, characters change personality and conviction all too rapidly, and an overdose of drugs leads to a quick nap on the bathroom floor before moar dancing.
There is little doubt that the Northern Soul scene was a cultural phenomenon, and influenced many people, and there is definitely a story to be told about the drug scene at the time, as well as the fascination with certain fashions, music styles and friendships at the time. Elaine Constantine’s film tries to envelop all of this, and just ends up chaotic. Characters are given no time to develop – other than Langridge’s John, who simply turns into a ball of rage – and the drug storyline introduced in muffled dialogue. This changes the course of the film entirely, but the audience is left wondering what happened because much of the dialogue is unintelligible… As someone from North Yorkshire who still has an ear for the accent, even I struggled to understand what was being said at times.
Constantine’s script is a mess, as is her direction; she focuses too much on the dance scene, never truly explains the drug sub-plot and never gives her characters a chance to grow or change, until a car crash-ex-machina seems to do her job for her.
In all, Northern Soul is a mess. There is a story to be told about the scene, but this is not it. Audiences are likely to come out knowing even less than they did going in. Not even Steve Coogan can save this debacle, try though he might. Perhaps its best to watch that Moloko video again or, at a push, Duffy’s Mercy video.