It was expected to be a short-run release of a niche movie. But a wave of social media interest in Northern Soul, a film about the 1970s British dance movement which will be released on Friday, is turning it into a nationwide success beyond the dreams of its creators.
Directed by Elaine Constantine, the film tells the story of two working-class teenagers from an industrial town who discover northern soul, a DJ-led movement at the tailend of the British mod scene that was started by the popularity of black American soul music, particularly focusing on rare gems released on obscure labels. Starring two previously unknown actors, Elliot James Langridge and Josh Whitehouse, it includes cameos from Ricky Tomlinson, Lisa Stansfield, Christian McKay, Steve Coogan and John Thompson.
The film was planned to screen at a few selected venues, but a surge in demand fed by social media sites has meant that it is now showing in 125 cinemas around the country, making it one of the widest-ever short-window feature film releases. Cinemas have been overwhelmed with requests to show it, with one cinema reportedly booked out by a single person who has distributed the tickets among his friends.
More cinemas are being added through Ourscreen, a Kickstarter-style online platform that allows film fans to influence their local cinema’s programme. There are currently 23 cinemas on the Ourscreen website either confirmed or under consideration to screen Northern Soul.
The enthusiasm for the film has taken even Constantine by surprise. The director, who began her career taking photographs in clubs before working for magazines such as the The Face, i-D and Vogue, was turned down by all of the arts funding bodies when she decided to make the film. Her attempts to attract private investors failed to attract big benefactors, so Constantine and her husband remortgaged their home and spent all their savings on the project.
“We never knew whether we were going to get a big cinematic release or not. Me and the producer, Debbie, were thinking we’d probably get a few screens,” she said, “but when we announced the release day a lot of fans were indignant about it not being screened in their home town. A Facebook page was set up by fans urging others to petition the cinemas.”
Constantine had been trying to get the film made for several years. To teach the young actors, as well as hundreds of extras, to dance to the music in the film, she and a few of her friends set up a monthly club night in a room above a pub in Islington, north London, as well as one in Bolton some years ago. After each session she would post footage online to attract new dancers and by last year their Facebook channel had 30,000 followers. “We needed to populate the club scene for the film, and we wanted a young core audience of northern soul to do that. Kids started coming to the dance sessions, and then their friends. Lots of them would go, ‘What was that you played last week, can we get a copy?’ and ended up buying vinyl and DJ-ing themselves. It was really like the youth club situation that I came through when I discovered northern soul.”
Ian Cartwright, director of Ourscreen, said that, although he had expected the film to be popular, he had not anticipated this level of demand. “We knew it would have a really big and active fanbase. From seeing their social media, whenever something new about the film was put up it always got a lot of traction online. We’ve had thousands of emails in requesting the film be put in other cinemas around the country. And we’ve also had a few new cinemas come on board because they’ve wanted to play the film and use Ourscreen to programme the film into their cinemas.”