Northern Soul – The Film
As a journalist I’ve always written about music, sometimes getting paid, but more often just for fun or to record for posterity the achievements of the great artists, DJs and paying guests that make the soul scene special. When the opportunity came up to interview Marco about the making of the new Northern Soul movie I took the opportunity to ask him about the challenges of locations, continuity, records, etc. and also how they managed to get some major stars on board for a small, independent film with a whole lotta’ soul.
When did you first decide that you were going to make the film and how did you start, what was the first thing you did to get the project underway?
I remember Elaine toying with mini DV cameras at venues around 16/17 years ago, just after we first met. Initially her intention was to make some kind of documentary record of the scene as it was back then. Pretty quickly however she became dissatisfied with that approach. I remember clearly a conversation in about 1998 where Elaine began to formulate the idea of capturing the scene in its youthful heyday. It was a bit of a fantasy at first – a sort of “wouldn’t it be amazing to be able recreate the scene as it was back in the 70s” flight of imagination. The more she thought about it the more she became convinced that was the only way to do it.
The first thing Elaine had to do was to learn how to write a screenplay, so she enrolled on an online scriptwriting boot camp based in LA and just started writing. That was around 1999.
Making a film about any sub group is tough, I imagine the hardest aspect is always going to be making it authentic enough to appeal to those on the inside while ensuring that it’s accessible to people who don’t have an in depth knowledge of the scene. Did you think about this and what was your approach to that problem?
That was always Elaine’s main intention funnily enough. She was constantly treading a line between being true to the logic and culture of the scene while creating a film that anyone could enjoy. So Matt and John’s story had to encapsulate something Universal somehow while being told through the particulars of the Northern scene. At the same time Elaine didn’t shy away from tackling some of the more arcane or darker elements of the 70s scene’s culture – cover-ups/squad/needles etc. Elaine spent years interviewing and researching these things – down to the language used – div, menk etc.
Much has been made in some quarters about the swearing, the drugs and the violence in the film and whether it was an authentic and accurate reflection of how things were then. Petty criminality and trafficking were an integral part of the scene in the 70s; it was far from one big happy family at times, as testimony from people who actually visited the toilets at the Golden Torch confirms. The real life story of what happened to Pete Lawson, for example, is far stranger and darker than anything portrayed in the film. We were lucky enough to have lots of friends and acquaintances who were heavily involved back then and who were invaluable sources of anecdotes and information – Guy Hennigan, Butch, Tim Finch, Ady Croasdell, Sue Brick, Chris Brick, Dave Clegg the sadly departed Fran Franklin, Mickey Cruise and Ant Wilson to name just a few…
One of the things that surprised me was the casting, getting big stars on board. How did you get Steve Coogan and the other established actors to agree to be involved for example?
The story of how Steve Coogan came on board is quite funny. His production company, Baby Cow, came on board a while ago as co-producers and his brother Martin was also on board from an early stage. But ironically that wasn’t what brought him in. I’m fairly sure that he hadn’t even read the script when a year or two later James Lance got hold of the script via a mutual friend (stylist Adam Howe who asked for the Ray Henderson part). The weekend after he was offered the role he was staying with Steve and made him read the script. The following Monday we got an email to say Steve was in. It basically took his mate raving about it to get him to commit to the project.
Lisa Stansfield was a friend of Elaine’s and we knew she was pursuing an acting career – it was an obvious move to get to pay John’s mum given that she’s from Lancashire herself.
Christian McKay was a total left-fielder as he’s actually from Bury and it turned out that his grandfather had been a friend of Elaine’s father’s many years ago – a real small-word story. He read the script and that was all it took for him to come on board.
The film has a fantastic look to it; visually it’s about as good as it could get in my view. The continuity issues must have been a challenge, making sure there were no SKY dishes, the wrong type of traffic lights, or ultra-modern double glazing, etc. Who was responsible for that aspect? And was it hard to find and secure locations?
We worked with Robin Brown who did an amazing job on the art department/production design side of things. Our DoP, Simon Tindall was responsible for the overall photographic look of the film and there was a conscious nod to the look and feel of the realist cinema of the time. Elaine did a lot of the location scouting – finding the exterior for the Casino etc. Lots was done in post-production to take out all the contemporary ‘street furniture’, discs etc.
Clearly, Northern Soul was the bastard son of mod, in a roundabout way via the coalfields and working men’s clubs of Yorkshire. Given that there were certainly dozens of scooter clubs in the north at that time and northern soul was the soundtrack, was there a sense that you wanted it to be totally distinct from ‘This is England’ and ‘Quadrophenia’, both well known films and dealing with similar themes of youth culture, for skinheads and mods respectively?
I’m not sure how conscious that was, though we did want to somehow establish, cinematographically, that this was a new moment in British youth culture. The book, however, traces the roots in Mod much more overtly than the film.
The tantalising theme running through the film was the trip to America, I imagine budget, logistics and running time prevented this trip from being written into the film, or were you deliberately trying to show that about 2% of those who said they would go actually went?
Not necessarily, it was more that the idea of America held out the prospect of the boys breaking out of the narrow confines of prescribed working-class life at the time. The promised ’trip to America’ is a symbol of the boy’s horizons being opened up and the possibility of a life their parents couldn’t even have dreamed of a generation before.
Loosely, regulars at the Plebeians in Halifax, the Twisted Wheel and even the Torch were, for all intents and purposes, mods. But by 1975 how close to the 1960s mod scene do you think the movement you portray was? Did you get a sense from people who got into it in the early 70s that they knew it had developed from mod, or was it simply of the moment?
I think Matt’s older brother Paul would have had that understanding but for lads of John and Matt’s age the soul scene would have had its own cultural logic and its own foundation in their love of soul records rather than the trappings of Mod culture. That said there persistent working class desire to stand apart from the mainstream which was codified in their choice of clothes, their style of dance and their choice of music, so in that sense the lineage is still there.
Did you use any original footage in the film; I thought there were some street scenes in particular that might have been taken from documentary footage, albeit expertly spliced into the movie?
There’s one scene of crowds of workers leaving the mills right at the beginning of the film and possibly another landscape shot of a northern town and moors, to help establish the film’s northern setting. All the rest is new footage.
So, obvious question, what about the sequel, Northern Soul: USA or bust! Joking apart, what about a Director’s cut on DVD, there must be loads of superb scenes that you had to edit out that didn’t make the final cut?
The first assembly of the film was about 150 minutes long, so roughly an hour’s worth ended up on the cutting room floor which one day could see the light of day. There are no definite plans for a sequel but the lad’s trip to America is rich with possibilities – so never say never!
Finally, is there any special merchandise that people can buy to accompany the film and where can that be purchased?
I’m sure people will already be aware of the DVD and soundtrack CD. The DVD features a really nice ‘making of’ extra feature. There’s also a vinyl box set of singles featuring all the music in the film which is beautifully designed and produced by Demon records.