Apparently there is, or was rather, a movement in the mid-70’s referred to as Northern Soul, and of which I was wholly oblivious until a few evenings ago. Part of the Summer outdoor programme at Somerville and Joondalup Pines, Soulboy is the rather mild story of a young man living in Stoke-On-Trent, which was a celebrated centre of industrial production for England, but not an exciting place for a young person to live. A little green from his limited experience of subculture, Joe McCain played well by the cheekily-dimpled Martin Compston, and his embarrassing best friend Russ (Alfie Allen) are lured by the charms of a startlingly beautiful blonde into the world of ‘Northern Soul’.
Northern Soul is what it sounds like: the children of rough, blue-collar workers in the North of England catch a shuttle coach once a week down to a resurrected dance hall where they listen to soul music and perform some very tricky dance moves. Accompanying the dance and music, are the various fashion particulars of northern soul: long leather jackets and singlets for the men, circle-cut skirts and bobby socks for the ladies, and a good helping of leather soles and patch-laden bowling bags all round. Soulboy depicts this culture as a short-lived one, yet representative of a unique reaction to the scarceness of enriching popular culture available to young people working in the tired industrial centresx of the North, especially in the economic prosperity enjoyed pre-Thatcher.
This film is pleasant enough, and the dance culture it illuminates is interesting, certainly enough so to be the subject of a film. The plot, however, the story of Joe McCain, is not a captivating one. It is styled as a heartwarming coming-of-age film, yet lurks in the wishy-washy territory between drama, comedy and historical pic. I imagine director Shimmy Marcus’s personal positive mantra was ‘”I will make this year’s Billy Elliot. I will make this year’s Billy Elliot.” It falls very far short of Billy Elliot, however, and no one character behaves in an exceptional manner. Perhaps this film is best described as a snapshot of what a Northern Soul dancer’s experience of the scene was actually like: A normal guy likes to go to a venue, where a bit of romance ensues, as does minor drug-taking and a splash of justified violence, and everything ends up more or less happily, no real lessons learnt. A day-in-the-life, if you will.
The soul music itself is absolutely the best part of this film. As to the rest of it, it’s almost as if a standardized bildunsroman plot, lifted from some classical source, got dipped in a big vat of Northern Soul. Like when the Bell Shakespeare company stages a production of Romeo and Juliet, but sets it in a prohibition-era speakeasy. This is little more than a subculture theme movie.