Something was happening in the gritty working class towns of Northern England in 1974. There, amongst the brick factories and austere cityscapes, lay hidden an underground music scene percolating with the styles and sounds of American soul. Eddie Parker, The Salvadores, James Fountain, The Velvets, Sam Dees, The Royal Esquires and others endowed the kids of north England with a sense of contemporary defiance, razing the prosaic monotony of industrial unrest and political uncertainty into a heap of obscure 45s and amphetamine-fueled dance parties. Where school, teachers and parents failed, soul music succeed.
Director Elaine Constantine, in her film Northern Soul, has brought this experience to life with the visceral instincts of someone who could have only witnessed the phenomenon first hand. Gone is the sense of vogue mawkishness that portrays underground music scenes as something to be revered through the portals of nostalgic remembrance. Instead, she leads her audience into a world filled with the vulgar challenges of youth and the vain transformations which inevitably become the engine of personal revolution. The source of which will always be the urbanization of soul music and the fashion and culture that originated along with it.
There was a reason why the kids in the north of England found such a common cause with the soul music of America. Just like in America, British soul music represented the vicissitudes of a modern age that was rife with hypocrisy, violence and injustice, becoming a remedy for society’s many great failures. Which is why there is nothing superficial about this film, nor does there need to be. This is not a story of triumph or success, but one of struggle and dissension—a reminder of what makes music so essential to all of our lives.
Northern Soul should be watched with a certain kind of contemplative reflection, which can transcend the northern England club scene of the mid-1970s and remind us of a time when truly great music scenes changed the world. That before the cynicism of music television and prepackaged artists there was something just waiting to be discovered at a local pub, in bars and clubs and basements of any major city…
*Check out host of The Face Radio, Kurtis Powers’ interview with director Elaine Constantine to get a first hand account of the music, fashion and dancing that was featured in the film Northern Soul.
Landon Shroder is a writer for VICE News, an editorialist for the Fair Observer and a commentator on terrorism and politics in the Middle East. You can follow him on @landonshroder
The Face Radio (Kurtis Powers): Tell me about your initial background with the Northern Soul scene and what made you start this project to begin with…
Elaine Constantine: I grew up on the Northern Soul scene. As a young teenager I discovered this music in a youth club very much like the lead character did, although I didn’t have a fight with anyone (laughs). It kinda gripped me watching people dance that I kinda knew from school who I thought were maybe quite inconsequential in the sort of pecking order of things, but I’d see various people from school who were not like the most popular people just getting off on this fantastic music and really becoming somebody else on the dance floor and it just made me think, Oh my God, this is incredible, this is a way of life for these people and I got into it as soon as I saw that kinda look on people’s face when they were dancing.
The Face Radio: Did you ever get to visit any of the famous Northern Soul clubs from that time that you feature in this film?
Elaine Constantine: Personally? – Not Many. (laughing) Because I’m a little bit younger, so my older siblings were all of the age of the Twisted Wheel and Wigan-era and Blackpool. My elder sister went to the Twisted Wheel. I was just a bit too young so I missed that kinda Wigan-era. I got into gong to all-nighters in about 1980, and I sort of missed everything that was the kinda of raging youth of Northern Soul, the eye of the storm. But when I got into it in the 80s, things were still quite popular, you know, it was still quite big, in Lancashire anyway, where I came from (in and around Manchester, etc.) So, yea, but, I think I had a very similar experience, a similar trajectory to the lead character.
The Face Radio: So I wanted to take just a few steps back and talk a little bit about the making of this film. I understand that it didn’t actually come easy for you. Things didn’t just immediately fall into place. You faced quite a few obstacles. Tell us about that.
Elaine Constantine: Yea, I think from exchanging stories with a lot of directors and writers and independent film makers, it is the norm, really. Especially, you know, you’re gonna do a film about a niche subject matter, the doors are all closed, or were. No one wants to do films like this, or didn’t. So, we spent a lot of money trying to create little bits of things for people to go “oh yea we wanna back this film, we’ll give you money”, and that didn’t happen. So we spent money trying to raise money that didn’t come, so that was a bit frustrating and kinda risky. But just generally, I couldn’t find a writer, because I wasn’t a writer, I wasn’t even a feature film director, but I knew I had this story, and I’m a very competent photographer and short film maker, if you like, so I knew that somewhere along the line that maybe I could make this film if I could raise the money. So it was just trying to write the script really that was the hardest thing I think for me. Beyond raising the cash.
The Face Radio: So you’d say writing the script was the biggest obstacle?
Elaine Constantine: Yea, because it’s so personal, and you know, I have a very specific memory of it, which doesn’t tally up with every Northern Soul fan, so, you know its about trying to just gauge it so that it hits that point that affects everyone, you know what I mean? Beyond writing the script, which took me 10 years, obviously, just breaking into the film industry in England was almost impossible. People have called me a force of nature, because I’m so, what’s the word, I must be a bit dumb, and that fear of failure or something because, people keep saying to me, “We don’t know how you made that film, we don’t know how you got it into the cinema, we don’t know how you did it. So few films get made, and you did it, you came from nowhere and you got it done, and you made it a box office top 10”, it’s like pretty incredible. So yea, it is, it’s a shock that all of that happened, but then you know, when you’ve got something you love and something you care about, and you want to see it done well and done right, then it’s not a question.
The Face Radio: Initially you started out as a photographer, that was your background, and you did a book for Northern Soul, was this your initial intention?
Elaine Constantine: No. What happened was, when I decided that I was gonna make a film about Northern Soul it was more of an idea to do a documentary to set the record straight. I saw lots of things about Northern Soul over the years, but I never felt anyone had really hit on the essence of what it was. So I wanted to tell the real story in a documentary, so I started interviewing people, and I did this for a few years and then I realized at some point it wasn’t sexy enough anymore. It wasn’t young nubile things on the dance floor anymore it was more about collecting records, and it was more about kind of you know following DJs and more about venues and who plays what and it got all quite political as things do as they get further and further down the line. So, I didn’t want to tell that story I wanted everyone to see who wasn’t into Northern Soul or had heard the term and didn’t understand what it was – exactly what it was, and exactly how it drove those kids who had no confidence to become peacocks on the dance floor and how it drove kids to want to collect records in America, to want to go find something exotic that would touch them, who were possibly kids who didn’t have any aspirations normally, (incomprehensible) to do that and hadn’t looked beyond the factory or the production line or the shit jobs. So yea, I just wanted to tell that story. Because it’s a story of aspiration really, it comes from modernism, it’s always about finding the next thing, it’s not a retro thing as people misunderstand it!
The Face Radio: There were those films in the past that were also based on Northern Soul. Obviously with the scene being the harshest critic, was there something you knew you had to do to put this in a place to separate it from its predecessors?
Elaine Constantine: One of was I never really felt that, in whatever way it was being represented, that this music was driving this passion and vice versa. It is really hard to articulate that for one or even visually represent it, so that was my mission, first and foremost. And then it was just to tell the authentic tale. These kids were rough, you know, they were right running wild, they were like running rings around the police. The chemists were being burgled in every town, they were setting up roadblocks. These kids were getting away with murder. They were quite wild, and it was really rock and roll you know, it wasn’t just a bunch of kids with some talcum powder doing happy-clappy dancing. There was some real ruffians involved. You know, 95% of them were high as kites when they were in these all-nighters, and the people who said they weren’t, they weren’t there, they only went a few times, they didn’t get it, they didn’t get into it. All they’re sharing their Facebook pages with their families, and they’re saying “we didn’t do it” you know. Anyone who says this scene wasn’t about drugs, it’s bullshit! It was totally, drugs were fueling the kind of, the decision in what records to play, and what records to find, and what records to collect. At one point. One of the biggest drug dealers in the country, a guy called Chris Brick, he was supplying 200 drug dealers at Wigan Casino on a Saturday night and walking away with 6000 pounds every week in his pockets. He went down for it, but these are all facts. You can read about it in the book, but yea, that scene did have a very heavy drug influence, but it wasn’t predominately about the drugs, it was about the music – but the drugs enhanced the music so that you could keep dancing, keep rhythm, you know?
The Face Radio: I noticed that even before I saw the film, everyone seems to have an opinion on this. What the film says or doesn’t say about the scene at the time. Not enough dancing? Too much drugs? You’ve got evidence of things that took place at the time. How do you respond to that or do you even bother?
Elaine Constantine: Well, some people say, “bang on, that was my experience of Northern Soul, well done, you hit the nail on the head”. A smaller percentage of people say, “there’s too many drugs”. And also, the other people say, “there’s not enough music and dancing”. Well I think there’s plenty of music and dancing in that film. I just think that the people who may say that, are not used to watching independent movies, used to watching films or music shows – full of opportunities to sing a song and do a dance, which this film is not. This film is a realism film. I’ve tried to make it feel like an honest and truthful representation of those times. So I’m not gonna have them all breaking into song. Its not West Side Story, you know what I mean?
The Face Radio: I’ve watched the film a few times now. And as a viewer I think you tend to gravitate towards a character and many times that character will lead you to feel a certain way about the outcome of the story. I gravitated more towards John Clarke, because of his background and where he started. He was kid that was lost, without direction, and found this music and found the scene, and loved it, and took it very seriously. Almost in the competitive and/or aspirational side. Was this something international that you created, these characters, though side-by-side really have contrasting paths?
Elaine Constantine: Yea, I think that like in all things with the friendship when the sort of king is toppled by the prince, it’s gonna cause – it’s gonna open up some wounds, isn’t it? I think in this case, the tall kid was the mentor at the beginning, and as soon as the other kid supersedes that, he doesn’t have the admirer anymore, he doesn’t have the follower, it breaks him, it breaks his kind of fragile ego, and it opens up the cracks of some issues he’s got possibly from the past. So on a kind of story level, that was the idea about that. It does represent two sides of the scene. There are the elements of people that are very ambitious, and can kind of not really care about where there friends are going until maybe its too late, because they wanna be a DJ and they wanna be, you know, the best. And obviously those are the kind of negative sides of the John Clarke character. He then recognizes to create this kind of olive branch later on. And then there’s this kind of weaker character who maybe hasn’t got anything else going on in their life, who maybe might get too far into the drugs to compensate for that, and it has terrible – what’s the word, (results?)
The Face Radio: You were saying before that this story was very personal to you, how much of this “fictional” story was really based on real events that you saw and experienced?
Elaine Constantine: I don’t think there’s a scene in that film that I didn’t see or experience, but not all in that order and to the same people. So like, even down to the funeral where the guy’s like screaming on the dance floor. That actually happened. The youth club scene where they go to the door, and they go “Linda’s not letting us in” (laughing). I cannot tell you how many times that’s happened to me, at various, not Northern Soul do’s, we’re talking like, you know, different sorts of clubs throughout, especially living in Manchester through the 80s, countless times we’ve been like, me and a gang of friends have got this club going, “yea its great”, and you turn up one day and the bouncer’s stood outside or someone going, “no, you can’t come in”. YOU’VE RUINED IT! (laughing) So, that was really true. And also, you know, just trying to reflect that experience on the dance floor of engaging our mass with all of your peers at the same time, whilst listening to this incredible music that really touches you in a deep way. I just think its one of those wonderful things about youth that sort of changes you in a way. Forms you. And I just really wanted to reflect that, more than anything. But yea, everything in there, like the guy dying, the guy who dies in the car crash, is based on an ex-boyfriend of mine who hung himself sadly a long time ago, but he was that character, he actually beat three guys up in front of me and I didn’t even see it coming. You know when he gets out of the car, and he “bum bum bum”, yea, that actually happened right in front of me once. He said to me, “there’s three guys following us”, and I went, “no there isn’t”, and he turned around and there was, and he just kicked them all to the ground, it was really weird. Things really do happen. Not just things that happen in movies (laughing).
The Face Radio: For you, what was the most important thing about this story?
Elaine Constantine: I think that, maybe it’s the message, that – it doesn’t matter where you come from, if you’re inspired by something, it can take you somewhere that can get you out of your situation, it can inspire you – to think beyond your narrow sphere.
The Face Radio: For me my favorite moment, or I should say one of my favorite moments, in this scene is when John walks into Wigan Casino for the first time, and the Duke Browner single is playing, and everyone claps on unison in those two parts in the song. He has the expression of experiencing that thing that you know that you’ve had in your life that once you’ve experienced it, that you’re whole life is different…
Elaine Constantine: I also think that the really special thing about that is no one outside that building, in that town, in that county, in that country knows that record. Not only do they not know that record, they don’t know where that clap is gonna come. Only the people in that room know where that clap is gonna come. There’s something really special about that, because in that one second, you have affirmed to you that you are a special insider (laughing).
The Face Radio: And that to me was what, you know, you just felt that moment that suddenly, “this was a thing.”
We were talking about the dancing, and in my opinion I felt the dancing was a huge part of this film – or obviously a part of what was going on that brought the people there. So how much of the cast were already prepared for this, and what did you do to get everyone up to the par?
Elaine Constantine: So, we’re just going back to the fact that all the doors were shut to getting this film out there, and talk about, you know, I’d already started this process of trying to find my idea protagonists, and looking around for people who were not actors, or not famous people, and start training them to kind of get into this thing. So me thinking “I’m gonna shoot in a year’s time” became actually, I’m gonna shoot in six years time. The grace of that in a way is that Elliott James Langridge trained with me for six and a half years, and that was a bit of a journey between the two of us because there were moments where he lost faith, and said, “I don’t think this films gonna get made, I’m not doing this anymore, it feels like I’m on this complete bullshit trail”, you know. Which is fair enough, and I just had to try and talk him round each time this happened because, he was thinking I was kind of making him promises I couldn’t deliver, so there’s that. But also just having that preparation time and this thing we created this dance club, it just grew and grew, and we didn’t have any idea that it would have the effect that it did, and what happened was, we’d grown this dance group from about 15 kids that we’d auditioned, to say, “will you learn to dance to be in a teaser?” to about 500 kids who were coming from all sorts of backgrounds, like some peoples kids had come from parents who were Northern Soulers, but literally at that point, seven or eight years ago, in the UK, there were no young people into northern soul, at all. There was one little girl who used to come to an all-nighter with her mum or a weekender, that was it. She was 16, and she was the youngest person on the scene. And I was literally ringing people up in their 30s, who I’d seen here and there at different all-nighters, and go “please come and dance for my teaser”, and they were going “I’m not around that weekend”, so literally six weeks before we auditioned a load of kids, and some of them dancers, some of them actors and said, “please, do 10 lessons with us and we’ll put you in the teaser and we’ll guarantee you a place in the film whether it’s a dancer or an actor” and that’s what happened. And then we started posting these sessions up on social media and that group grew and grew, and it became something that young people kinda wanted to get involved in beyond the film because they were introduced to the music. So it was a hard slug that, trying to keep people interested.
The Face Radio: So deep down you actually helped the scene grow a bit.
Elaine Constantine: Yea…
The Face Radio: So jumping a little bit further ahead, you mentioned that you were able to bring in some lesser known talent to be in this film, but at the same time you managed to bring in somebody as well know as Steve Coogan. How did that come about?
Elaine Constantine: I think it was about six months before we shot, I’d sent the script to Steve’s older brother Martin. Martin was in the band the Mock Turtles. I don’t know if you remember them, but they had a hit called “Can You Dig It”, and I’d been on tour with them as a photographer, and stayed in touch with Martin, sent the script to him, and Martin said “he wont do – it if he doesn’t like the script, you understand that, don’t you?”, I was like “yea yea, but I’ve got to try!”, and he said “alright, send it to him, he might not read either, you know, he’s busy”. And then I kind of forgot all about it – because I just thought, “ahhh, he won’t read it (laughing) he’s doing Philomena or whatever”, and then I got a text in the middle of the night one night that woke me up saying “Steve’s on board” from Martin, and I couldn’t sleep then, I was like, “bloody hell, I’ve got Steve Coogan” (laughing)
The Face Radio: (laughing) Yea that’s massive
Elaine Constantine: And uh, yea, he was brilliant. He came up the night before, and we showed him some scenes that we’d shot already, and he was like tapping his feet and you know, really getting into it, and I was like, “bloody hell, you know, this is good, this is really good!” and he goes, “right, what time’s my call time?” and I went “um, 8:00…” and he went “what time’s it now?” and I said “its 11:00”, and he went “ok, I’ve got nine hours to read the whole script.” (laughing)
The Face Radio: (laughing) So he’s agreed to it without even reading the entire script.
Elaine Constantine: His own scenes, and he liked it that much, because it reminded him of Ken Loach’s KES, that he’d accepted, which was quite brave of him to do. And he just said when he saw the scenes like with all the music and the dancing, he just wanted to get a sense of the whole thing, so he stayed up all night, read the script and then prepared two different characters from it for the morning. You know, reading the lines as scripted, but in a different kinda character, different persona sort of thing. I was like, pretty amazed when I saw him at breakfast, because he was like. REALLY FIRED UP, and so I was like, “yea, I like the second one” (laughing), and that was that. Yea, so he did it, and he was brilliant and he was very supportive throughout the launch, etc etc, and we’ve become quite good friends, and I’m now writing a part for him in my new film.
The Face Radio: Wow! It sounds like you’ve come a very long way. Since that time, you were nominated for a BAFTA, and the London Critics Circle Film award. You broke into the UK box office top 10, and now you’re having a premiere here in NYC on the 16th of September. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Fest. You’re opening at select theaters across the US on the 2nd of October, including NYC, in Time Square, and Los Angeles as well. Considering you were talking about trying to help people keep the faith, did you ever expect to be at this place with this?
Elaine Constantine: It’s quite surreal really. I mean I know that this phenomenon that is Northern Soul is a marvelous thing, and its very unique and special and visually its wonderful, and the audio, you can’t beat it, as you know yourself Kurtis, so yea, I mean, I didn’t ever lose faith in it, but at the same time I just thought it might only appeal to its own niche audience and not break out, but it seems to have broken out, a little bit at least, you know? Yea, and especially, I mean, I don’t know what’s gonna happen in America, maybe people won’t be able to understand the accents, I don’t know, it’s hard to gauge. I really hope that they will see the kind of youthful experience is something similar to what they might have had on whatever scene they grew up in. ‘Cause my agent in LA, when he saw the film, he said, “I’d like to represent you, I love Northern Soul”, and I said to him… (this guy’s called Josh Lieberman, he’s at CAA, yea, and he reps like all the A-list actors and everything) “what appeals to you about Northern Soul? You haven’t grown up in that kind of environment?” He went, “no, but I got into music in the same way. I got into folk music” and then he described his youth and it was almost like the same sort of thing but with different music, so, I just imagined that maybe it will appeal because there are some similarities despite the fact that we’re on the other side of the Atlantic, you know….
The Face Radio: It’s still a film of passion and belonging and community, and I think that to be honest, I feel like unless you were lucky enough to have found yourself at such a young age, I feel like most people will identify either one of the main characters… So, you’d mentioned briefly, but what’s next for you as a director, Elaine?
Elaine Constantine: Well, I would quite like the opportunity to work on a script that hasn’t been written by me, and um (laughing) because I think that maybe I’m not the best script writer, because it took me so long to write that script. So yea, I’m kinda reading lots of scripts at the moment and waiting for the right one, and I’m also trying to write another one that will take time obviously because I’m not a writer, I didn’t go to further education, I didn’t do a degree, um, which most people in this industry have done a degree. I come from a very working class, simple background, so I struggle with things like that, but maybe that will be the next film, but maybe it will be somebody else’s, who knows…?
The Face Radio: Well I guess that about wraps it up. You can catch Elaine Constantine and the Northern Soul film here in Brooklyn at the Nitehawk Cinema on the 16th of September, tickets are still on sale, but are almost sold out, so get on that. She’ll be at the Toronto International Film Festival on the 18th of September, and in Los Angeles on the 23rd. The film will be in select theaters across North America on the 2nd of October. Elaine, thank you so much for being on The Face, and we wish you the best of success and we’ll see you soon!
Elaine Constantine: Thank you so much, I really enjoyed that interview!
You can listen to the entire show with Elaine Constantine here.
Make sure you don’t miss out on the premiere here in Brooklyn. We’ll have DJs, and Mod-tails sponsored by our friends at ModCup over at the Fred Perry Brooklyn store from 6pm on the 16th of September, and we’ll be carrying on from 8pm at Nitehawk Cinema with DJs and more. The film begins at 9:30PM, and I’ll be doing a Q&A with Elaine following.
As we’ve been saying for the last few weeks, we’re gonna be doing some giveaways and we’ll be doing some very special Northern Soul giveaways, so make sure you sign up for a chance to win.