Rebel Without A Clue
Well, the number of major studio releases in cinemas has reached peak again, so while they all take a short break from bringing out big new films, a gap has appeared for the smaller and more niche movie to take advantage of. There are a couple of classic pop and rock period pieces doing the rounds at the moment – a somewhat controversial Jimi Hendrix bio-pic, which I haven't seen, and Elaine Constantine's ultra-low-budget paean to a very particular time and place, Northern Soul, which I have.
Constantine's film takes as its backdrop the Northern Soul scene of Lancashire in the mid 1970s, when young English people became thoroughly enraptured with uptempo, beat-heavy music made in the US a decade earlier. It is a distinct subculture which has experienced a bit of a revival in recent years, and one which launched the careers of some fairly significant music-industry figures (along with that of the ever-controversial Ian Levine, continuity advisor to the 1980s Doctor Who regime and co-composer of the legendary 'doo-doo-doo-de-doo' K9 and Company theme tune). So perhaps it makes some sense to use it as a major element of a movie.
This is not, as some publicity suggests, a dramatised history of the rise of Northern Soul to prominence, but an entirely fictional narrative – the hero, John (Elliot James Langridge), comes from an entirely made-up small Lancashire town, presumably because this allows the film to be very very rude about it without attracting complaints from irate councillors. Anyway, here he lives, mocked and ridiculed by his schoolmates, misunderstood by his parents, and so on. He is clearly a young man of potential just searching for an outlet.
He finds this when he befriends Matt (Josh Whitehouse), a flamboyant and unpredictable afficionado of the Northern Soul sound. John quickly falls under the sway of the lifestyle, with its alluring mixture of banging tunes, heavy amphetamine use, low-intensity vandalism, and improbably high-kicking dance moves. John and Matt share a dream: to go to the States, purchase a trove of obscure soul records for themselves, and use them to become established as powers in the world of Northern Soul DJ-ing...
The most obvious thing about Northern Soul is that, as a film about Northern Soul, it has a terrific Northern Soul soundtrack. But, on the other hand, this is pretty much the minimum you would expect from a film concerned with this particular milieu. The success or failure of this film depends on what else it brings to the party.
On paper the omens are good – the film has been produced in association with the usually reliable company Baby Cow, which means that the services of some noted performers have been procured – John Thomson, Ricky Tomlinson, Lisa Stansfield – as well as those of one bona fide movie star, in the form of Steve Coogan. However, what the advertising is somewhat less than forthright about is the fact that all of these people are only in the film for about four minutes each, and no matter how talented they are, there is limit to how high they can rise above the level of the script.
This, at the risk of mangling a metaphor, sets a low bar for proceedings. Thematically, this is just the kind of musically-tinged coming-of-age story we have seen many times before – John learns some tough lessons about friendship and responsibility along the way – and to be honest the only way it departs from this template is in a certain cack-handedness: it's actually a little unclear exactly what tough lessons John has learned by the arrival of the conclusion – he certainly seems no closer to reaching any of the nebulous goals the script has set for him. The conclusion is, to be perfectly honest, not what you might expect, but to say much more would be to talk about second- and third-act plot details, which is obviously a no-no.
Even beyond this, the film's actual scene execution is often sub-par: there's almost an am-dram quality to the performances of the younger members of the cast (which includes all the leads), and too often the film trades in It's Grim Up North stereotypes and period misery. And, for a film about rebellious youth, the film makes a serious misjudgement in presenting the forces they're rebelling against – teachers, parents, youth club organisers – as so pathetic and petty themselves. This robs many scenes of an appropriate emotional context and the result is simply melodrama – characters seeming to overreact wildly to the simplest of things.
And so things remain fairly uninvolving throughout, which is a problem for a character-driven film like this one. And while the script has a vague stab at incorporating elements of the Northern Soul legend into the story – trips to America in search of new discs, mysterious blank-labelled records (so DJs could retain exclusive access to certain songs), certain famous clubs – it ultimately remains not much more than a broad-brush backdrop in front of which an uninspired narrative is enacted.
I wanted to like Northern Soul, honestly, but apart from the soundtrack it really doesn't have much to commend it – the characters are unsympathetic, and not portrayed with any great finesse, while the story is uninspired and actually a bit dispiriting – wholly unlike the music it attempts to celebrate. When it comes to movies, bigger isn't always better, but small isn't always beautiful.