“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything” (Plato).
Very few things can fill a person with drive and passion the way music can, whatever the genre. In the late 1960s, the UK experienced a fervent music and dance movement called Northern Soul, which saw young people flocking to clubs in droves and literally dancing the nights away. Writer and Director Elaine Constantine was part of that movement and brings her passion to the screen in her first feature film, NORTHERN SOUL, which stars Elliot Langridge, Josh Whitehouse and Steve Coogan. Langridge and Whitehouse are John and Matt, two young men dissatisfied by their dull existence in 1970s Northern England and leery of their almost certainly dismal future as factory workers. The discovery of black American soul music suddenly gives their lives purpose, and the two friends bond over all-nighters and dreams of heading to the US to become successful DJ’s.
The film, which took years of effort on Constantine’s part to see realized, has seemingly reignited Northern Soul fever in the UK, providing nostalgia for those lucky enough to experience it firsthand and a new interest from younger music fans – including its two lead actors. In town for the movie’s screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, I spoke with Langridge and Whitehouse about the project and the director’s love that drove it.
Ramona Zacharias: This was such a passion project for Elaine, and a long time in the making. Tell me about working with her on set.
Elliot Langridge: Elaine is one of a kind. I’ve worked with directors since and they’ve been great projects…but there’s something about NORTHERN SOUL and her passion for it that is very rare. Translating that onto the screen, she just made it – not easy, because it wasn’t easy – but she made it so much easier than it could have been. Her passion drove us through that project. For everything that we did, she’d sit us down and would tell us exactly how she wanted it to be done. She really did guide us through it. She’s one of those people who, if you haven’t done it right, she will keep going until you get it right. So you know once she says “Cut”, that she’s happy, we can move on and we’re done.
Josh Whitehouse: She was like a second mother to me by the end of filming. I ended up looking after her kid for six months after school every day; I worked in her office and spent a lot of time with her family. She really became like more of a friend than just a director to us. It’s even great to be out here now and spend some time with her again and celebrate this together – because she really did work so hard on it. She put her life and soul and everything into it and nearly lost a lot. She remortgaged her house, sold all her records…she really did everything for this film. So for it to be good and for people to have given the response that she wanted is heartwarming. I felt like when we were filming, I wasn’t really performing the character for my sake – I felt like I knew how to do the character she wanted and I was doing it for her sake.
RZ: The UK audience response must have been a huge validation in itself.
JW: Yes! It was given a general public release of six cinemas for three days, but it ended up in 200+ cinemas for three months. People were hearing about it and wanted to see it – so they were booking out cinemas with their friends to fill up the seats. And then because of the way that people were hyping about it, it seemed to spread like wildfire. I went to see it about 10 or 15 times, and I’d sit in the back of the cinema. At the end of each showing, people stood up and clapped. It was something I’d not seen in the cinema before…and I’ve been to the cinema a lot of times in my life!
EL: I remember reading in the newspaper that there was one guy who booked an entire screening – he just bought every single ticket and got his family and friends, everyone he knew, to go watch it. When you hear things like that…it just doesn’t happen. It was nuts and it was really great to have that sort of backing from the Northern Soul movement. It was heartwarming.
JW: It goes hand in hand with the fact that it’s such a strong scene; it’s still very present and it’s still much loved. The music and the lifestyle of being a “Soulie” is still there and very genuine. People were dying for it. I remember in the months that we were waiting for the edit to be done and the distribution to be cleared, people were getting angry on Facebook. They were saying “Where’s the f&*%ing film?!” It started getting quite angsty! But in a good way, because they just really wanted to see it.
EL: We were so glad that it didn’t disappoint! Can you imagine?
RZ: How familiar were you with the Northern Soul movement going into this project?
EL: I’m from the south and I didn’t know anything about it. Elaine really did open my eyes up to this new world. I remember my dad telling me about what he thought Northern Soul was…and as soon as I started doing my homework, I realized that he didn’t know much! But it was a whole new world opened up to me and it’s weird to think now that I was completely unaware of it.
JW: I’m from the north and I hadn’t heard of it. I’ve got no shame in saying I hadn’t heard of it, I just hadn’t grown up with it. My family was into Tracy Chapman and James Taylor and all of that. So that was the music that I knew of growing up and this stuff wasn’t part of my lifestyle. But as I did get to know it and I started listening to it more and more, I fell in love with it in its own right. It inspired me massively with my own music and with various things that I’ve been doing since. The songwriting style is great – they were brilliant songs. The first time I heard it, I didn’t quite know what to think – it was just presented to me and I was supposed to have an opinion on it. It really took going on the dance floor and learning to pound to it in the way that we do in the film, experience it like the people who are in love with it do, to understand exactly why that music is so great. It’s a hell of a feeling when you’re in that moment. It’s great for people who don’t know about it to be able to go to a cinema and see us doing that and giving it the passion that it had at the time – which is very much down to the way that Elaine trained us in terms of the attitude and everything. To have the music blasted at you through big speakers…that is a really great way to be introduced to it. It’s much more powerful than listening to it on an iPhone!
EL: Learning to dance to that…that was what made it happen for me. When you first hear a song and are expected to react to it, it’s like “OK”…but it’s when you learn the moves and you go onto a dance floor and you start listening to the song and the words. Learning to dance really helped it to become more real to me. You start to understand why people are so obsessed with it.
RZ: What kind of dance training did you have to have for the film? Did either of you have a background in dance before this?
JW: I was never a dancer before. I mean, I’ll prance around my house! And I feel like I’ve got a feeling for music. I’m a musician so I love rhythm and I love music and I love dance. But I never learned a real dance, you know? It was all brand new to me, really. So the training was pretty vigorous. I did two years of training myself during which there was a monthly dance club with everyone, beginners and pros. After the first six months, I started doing a weekly dance session with a guy called Keb Darge…and then a year in, we carried on doing the weekly and monthly dance sessions and started with acting lessons.
RZ: Was there any other research you did to really get inside the mindset of these young, passionate music-lovers in the 70s?
JW: I had to talk to a lot of DJs from the scene. Fortunately Elaine seemed to be a very popular lady on the scene – all of the biggest DJs know her and love her and her family. So we had the lucky opportunity to be able to go and speak to some of the DJs who were big at the time. Even Elaine’s husband, Marco Santucci, he’s a DJ on the scene as well and a massive Northern Soul collector. So we had this plethora of fantastic sources of inspiration for the characters. We also went to loads of all-nighters and went dancing on floors with thousands of people – putting the top down and actually experiencing the night and going through it before filming. I also learned how to use decks and DJ with other people about how you treat your records and things like that.
EL: There were all these tiny little things that the Northern Soulies were going to watch and say “that’s not right!” so we had to be sure. I’ve never touched a deck in my life! So training to be a DJ was a bit nerve-wracking. There were a lot of opportunities as we got to actually go to clubs and we even played at a few places as a form of practice. We got to be those characters in front of an audience and that was nerve-wracking too. But we did it and it was fine.
JW: We also worked with Paul Sadot, who was kind of our “attitude coach”. Elaine was very much that as well – there was a really big emphasis on not just learning the lines and how to dance and about the music, but also learning what your mindset was. And your attitude towards people, towards work…why you danced and why you listened to that music. Why everything else was shit. Paul was great; he used to put us in a chair and do what he’d call “hot seating”. He’d talk to you like other kids from that time – “Why are you listening to that? What’s your favourite song? That’s f$%^ing lame, that. Why are you doing that?” He’d really start nailing into you and you had to learn to talk back to him and hold your ground. He’d push you into dark places! That’s the stuff that I think really made us able to become the characters. Because of all of those things, once we were on set we could be them – we stayed in character the whole time for the five weeks we were filming. They were such fun characters to become. I search for that now, in terms of further acting work. It’s a funny position to be in – what do you go on to from that, you know? I want more passion projects. I want more crazy people doing crazy films about crazy stuff that are going to drive us and push us into places that we never expected before.
NORTHERN SOUL is now playing at Toronto’s Carlton Cinemas and is available nationally on iTunes and VOD. Check out the trailer here.