“What’s your favorite record?” That is the key question asked in director Elaine Constantine’s “Northern Soul,” a rousing, wildly entertaining Toronto International Film Festival entry set in mid-70s England. Here is a sonically explosive film that understands the deep connection that can exist between a genre of music and its fans, especially those who might be considered (or would consider themselves) outsiders. In this case, that genre is Northern Soul, a still-influential style of music that has never been properly documented onscreen before. While a few names will ring a bell to fans of soul music — Edwin Starr, for example — the majority are names unfamiliar to even the most devoted trainspotters. What’s most important is that the predominantly African-American sung music moves, and pulsates with a triumphant feeling at odds with much of early-’70s U.K. rock.
As “Northern Soul” begins, John Clark (Elliot James Langridge) is a sullen 18-year-old whose school and home lives are somber, unhappy affairs. His parents (played, in an unexpected pairing, by pop singer Lisa Stansfield and “Me and Orson Welles” star Christian McKay) find him far too weird and insular for comfort, and urge their only child to mingle at the local youth center. At school, he vacillates between boredom and embarrassment, finding himself the subject of ridicule from a starched-shirt teacher played, with delightful obnoxiousness, by Steve Coogan. Matt’s only real connection of note is with his good-natured grandad (Ricky Tomlinson).
Overhearing a conversation in which fellow teen Matt (Josh Whitehouse) is identified as a DJ changes his life. The duo quickly bond over music and John’s seemingly unlikely love of graffiti. Matt tells tales of “thousands of teenagers” dancing to Northern Soul tunes, and a place called the Wigan Casino. (Search on Wikipedia now, please.) He also speaks wistfully of America, and the scores of records that await them in Chicago and beyond. (There are several points of comparison with Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Eden,” and this sense of America as an oasis of music and talent is certainly one of them.) Constantine lovingly brings to life a time when music was still unattainable, when a mythic record could be shrouded in mystery. (“It’s the only place you can go and find a record nobody’s heard already!”)
“Northern Soul” bursts into life when John and Matt start DJing together, and ponder their own club space. Soon, John’s look and demeanor have undergone a marked change, and cause him to rebel at school and find the confidence to chat up the girl (Antonia Thomas nicely plays Angela) he’s seen from afar on the bus. As Starr’s “Back Street” pounds on the soundtrack, John and Matt’s wide-eyed plans begin to come to fruition. It takes time, but soon they’ve developed a following, one strong enough to attract the attention of real-life Northern Soul DJ legend Ray Henderson (James Lance).
Drugs, of course, enter the picture, as well as the shady likes of Jack Gordon’s Sean. It is here that the film’s initial verve starts to dip, and some late missteps (mainly those involving the character of Sean) keep the film from greatness, veering toward the type of melodrama “Eden” so successfully avoided. A sudden emotional outburst from John seems particularly contrived, and the film’s final stretch simply does not compare with what came before.
Yet it’s hard to feel too much in the way of disappointment, as “Northern Soul” is so successful as a whole. Constantine captures the invigorating joy of these songs, and humorously shows that it is nearly impossible to listen and not feel the urge to dance. (One is reminded of the memorable line uttered by Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson in “24 Hour Party People”: “This is the moment when even the white man starts dancing.”) It is a stirringly vivid debut feature for the first-time director, and considering her past, this is not a surprise. Constantine came to fame as an art director and photographer for sadly departed U.K. mag The Face, and has helmed music videos for the likes of Richard Hawley.
“Northern Soul” makes clear Constantine is a filmmaker to watch, and while it is hard not be most impressed with the film’s high-tempo editing and ideal music choices, it is also well-acted from top to bottom. Elliot James Langridge is likable and believably flawed, while nicely portraying how drastically John’s new friendships and suddenly public display of musical affection change his personality. Coogan is of course a delight in a too-brief role, but the most memorable performance here is from Josh Whitehouse. His Matt is a force of nature, yet one with a stronger sense of what’s right and wrong than John. It’s star-making work, and a sneeringly comic treat.
Like “Eden,” “Northern Soul” is tailor-made to send satisfied viewers racing to Spotify to track down the who’s-who roster of performers. In fact, the film’s double-album soundtrack features 54 (!) killer tracks, and likely qualifies as a must-own. Unlike the strained “The Boat That Rocked,” the film has a lived-in aesthetic and relentlessly enjoyable energy. If “Boat” felt stodgy and middle aged, “Northern Soul” feels driven by youthful energy. It undeniably counts as one of TIFF15’s most pleasant surprises. [B+]