First of all, a big shout to my colleague Laurence Elliott, who, while being in no way related to Joe Elliott, the lead singer of Def Leppard, IS a bit of a fellow Germanophile and, more importantly, recently lent me his prized copy of the much-trumpeted film Northern Soul (much trumpeted on its own website anyway – join the club, I say) which he got for Christmas from his nan. Or it might have been his sister. This small act of kindness has prompted me to offer up a modest overview of Northern Soul on film, both fictional and documentary. As if there were a difference in these post-truth times!
To my knowledge, Northern Soul is only the second feature film, after the equally unimaginatively titled Soul Boy, to use that now all too well-known subculture as its principal milieu, if not its main character. Advantages it has over Soul Boy:
- It doesn’t appear to have been written by and for 9 year old children – in fact, it’s quite “gritty”. Almost too gritty, in fact. The joy of the music is all too often overwhelmed by the grimness of the storyline involving intravenous drug use and the deleterious effects thereof.
- It doesn’t recycle old footage shot by Tony Palmer in the late 70s and try to incorporate it into new film of dancers, an almost Sisyphean task which brings to mind shots of Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn intercut with stock footage of African wildlife. All the dancing is new. And the dancers are quite good.
- Er… that’s it. They’re both a bit underwhelming really.
You’d think there would be a really good, gritty, exciting film about Northern Soul by now, but perhaps the problem is precisely that: a film “about” Northern Soul is inherently undramatic. It would need someone like Shane Meadows (of This Is England fame) to tackle it in an offbeat, anti-dramatic, observational fashion, one in which the music and dancing are to the fore, but also the humour and the drug-taking, and not in a depressing, “now let’s look at the dark side of soul” sort of way but a joyous celebration of speed, such as you find in an early Shane Meadows short (possibly Small Time) where a bunch of friends neck some pills and all dance like idiots in a pub, having a great time. Actually, Meadows has made a short called Northern Soul but in typical Meadows fashion, it has nothing whatsoever to do with said music scene.
Or you could make a proper, British version of Saturday Night Fever, which Northern Soul almost achieves, in which the tedium and limited horizons of the average Northern fan’s life is contrasted with the escapist fantasy of the Wigan Casino. Except that perhaps working-class white people’s lives in 1970s England weren’t as shit as they maintain they were, since it was the time of greatest economic and social equality in our entire history, and perhaps the Casino and other Northern venues weren’t really all they were cracked up to be either, and the Fall were right when they sang about The Lie Dream of Casino Soul.
There’s a brief scene in the otherwise execrable Blue Juice where, for reasons best known to the writers and producers, the Cornish surf dudes who are meant to be the stars of the film go to a Northern Soul club and all dance to Sam Dees Lonely for You.
Otherwise, for the best of Northen Soul on film, you should stick to the documentaries, either Tony Palmer’s now legendary (according to him, that is) This England documentary, which has nothing to do with Shane Meadows, and for that reason alone I haven’t embedded it. Also because, frankly, it’s over-rated and pretentious, and also because Tony Palmer is a cunt. Paul Mason, on the other hand, is a diamond geezer who supports Jeremy Corbyn, and the documentary he presents, Keeping the Faith (2013) has the advantage of brevity.
The 2014 BBC doc Living For The Weekend, on the other hand, feels long at an hour, but is comprehensive enough in its stuffy, formulaic approach to the subject, with everybody who is everybody (Ian Levine, Colin Curtis, Richard Searling, Marc Almond, the Angel of the North) appearing in the time-honoured talking head format favoured by the BBC documentary department.
If, on the other hand, you prefer the Han-Jurgen Syberberg approach to the subject (Laurence?) there’s always the Ian-Levine produced Strange World of Northern Soul, which clocks in at over four hours, and that’s just the first part! A lot of it is Ian Levine doing what Ian Levine does worst, re-recording Northern Soul artists with a Hi-NRG beat, but it does have the late, great Dave Godin, the man who coined the term Northern Soul, among the interviewees, and there is no greater, more articulate or more camp commentator on the phenomenon than he. Except, perhaps, Ian Levine. Judge for yourself….
Anyway, Germanophile AND soulboy that he is, Laurence has suggested that NO post on Northen Soul is complete without this tirade from Bruno Ganz, playing Hitler in The Wigan Casino: My Part in its Downfall, so here goes (oder, hier wir gehen...)