The logo and insider salute of England's Northern Soul music scene is a raised fist. It's a defiant antithesis of the mainstream Top of the Pops hit machine. Dismissive and suspicious of manufactured art, the 1970s underground record and dance movement was initially an offshoot of Mod culture, but evolved as it took hold in working-class towns, and soon favoured the fast tempo and pounding beats of early fifties and sixties American soul – from Frankie Valli to forgotten also-rans.
Northern Soul director Elaine Constantine's career as a documentary and fashion photographer has much the same attitude. On the eve of her debut feature's North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, we were chatting upstairs at Kops Records, surrounded by crates of 45s sourced by founder Martin Koppel, who started Toronto's oldest independent record store in 1976; it grew out of his hobby of collecting and dealing obscure soul records from the United States to Northern Soul aficionados in Britain.
"Things don't feel so authentic any more because everything's a commodity and everything's achievable with the click of a button," the director says of the underground scene, which she discovered at the age of 14 in her Lancashire hometown of Bury. "The wonderful thing was finding these lost treasures [records], little masterpieces that no one else knows about." Recent stories about the Northern Soul revival by a new generation tend to focus on the dance floor, since it's more photogenic than the records are, with gymnastic dance moves like side glides, spins, flips, claps and back drops. But, "before anything, it's a vinyl-collecting scene," Constantine says, gesturing to the thousands of 45s around us.
Northern Soul captures both the sweaty dance-hall all-nighters (imagine energetic and balletic Bruce Lee martial-arts moves to the sound of obscure Motown, Decca and Stax) and the psychology of fanatical collectors with an analog-quest subplot. Often, dance-hall attendees didn't even know the name of the songs or artists they loved, because DJs concealed them in order to cement their weekly followings.
Constantine has covered youth culture throughout her career, and her feature-film debut has the same immersive and visceral effect as her pseudo-documentary pictures in magazines such as i-D and The Face. Her first staged shoot in the 1990s was Mosh, a fully styled but emotionally powerful, naturalistic counterpoint to the glossy, heightened-artificiality fashion shoots that dominated that supermodel heyday. "I remember going to labs and would hear other photographers talking while I was looking through my pictures, going, 'Oh yeah, I'm gonna get this model because she'll be on the cover of Vogue this month,'" she says. "I was thinking to show ordinary people doing ordinary things, models who will give me something real, not make me famous."
The similar appeal of honest soul lyrics might seem a contradiction to the restrained, industrial northern English towns where the phenomenon flourished. "It was a very stoic culture – nobody hugged, nobody told each other things," she admits. "You wouldn't get your father saying, 'I love you' or even, 'well done' – it wasn't like that. You just got on with things, you got on with life." Northern Soul music worked, she adds, "because we believed the singers, we believed the lyrics, it was so sincere. And it was transportative on the dance floor, en masse."
The massive grassroots response that made Northern Soul an unexpected critical and commercial hit in Britain last year (and earned Constantine a BAFTA nomination) has been gratifying because it was a struggle to get the film made at all. "Every door was closed. I couldn't even get a production company going, or a producer to read it, even with my profile as a photographer," Constantine says. In spite of its enduring popularity and influence on later acid house, EDM and rave culture, Northern Soul has been largely left out of the history of British youth culture– perhaps because it was the niche phenomenon of the northern working class.
"It's a properly grassroots film, it came up from the people who loved the music, and everyone … helped out," Constantine says. That included cast workshops by performer Lisa Stansfield, a veteran of the original scene who plays a part in the film alongside fellow northerner Steve Coogan. "I've got so many letters saying, 'This film is not a viable commercial option' and all the rest of it," Constantine says. "And then we basically got the fans to demand it in the cinema, through social media."
The same groundswell of community support that expanded Northern Soul's theatrical footprint in England is picking up steam as it rolls out across the United States and Canada this fall. Not that Constantine ever stopped keeping the faith. Well before they remortgaged their house and spent personal savings to shoot the film three years ago, she and her husband began organizing monthly dance nights upstairs in a pub near their London home. To share her beloved scene with an energetic younger generation, certainly – but also to create extras who might later credibly populate the dance floor in her crowd scenes.