elaine constantine is keeping the faith with her new film on the northern soul scene
‘’Don’t come on the dance floor until you fucking know what this is,’’ cries photographer and filmmaker Elaine Constantine, ‘’because you don’t deserve it.’’ Not just a genre of music, but a code to live by, Northern Soul was either something you...
Born out of the 60s Mod scene, at the Twisted Wheel in Manchester and Wigan Casino, Northern Soul marched to soft beats of Motown, until soon DJs began to seek out rarer tracks from obscure labels. Almost like searching for gold or other exotic rarities, kids would journey into the rough areas of 70s America to find buried B-sides, forgotten tracks, and, even, songs that had never before been released. ''The first thing is the music. I believed the lyrics; I believed what they were saying - the love affair that's gone wrong or something that's not quite right, some kind of yearning. When I dance to a record, there's a whole story that I can transport myself into. And then around you you've got a periphery of sounds and smell and an army of people doing it with you, it's the most thrilling thing.''
Guarded fiercely, DJs would often cover up the records' labels, so that no-one else could steal them, while the only place you could ever hear them was at youth clubs in working class towns like Bury - where Elaine grew up - Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley, Wigan and Rochdale. And for those who were really serious about Northern Soul, there were weekend pilgrimages to clubs such as the Casino in Wigan, Blackpool's Mecca Ballroom, and the Golden Torch in Stoke, where hedonistic youths spent amphetamine-fuelled all-nighters, lost in euphoric bliss, and dancing to the rhythm of each beat. No alcohol to slow the mind, or dull the body, just you, the music, and the dance floor. But this was Northern Soul; everybody was serious about it. ''This wasn't about some poncey middle class kids from Surbiton, this was from the ghettoes of Black America.'' A far cry from the distracted youth of today, bloated from an overload of information and spoilt by our access to absolutely anything and everything, these kids lived and breathed Northern Soul, and Elaine was there to capture it all.
Starting her career as a photographer, it wasn't until her teacher at the Bury Camera Club showed her an art book about youth culture that Elaine knew she could turn her hobby - taking pictures of her all her Skinhead mates - into an art form. After bagging herself an apprenticeship under Nick Knight (''he was an icon, everyone knew who he was. I had a copy of Skinhead at home.'') Elaine set sail for London where she spent the next few years shooting for i-D and The Face.
A marked departure from the gritty realism of Corinne Day and Jürgen Teller, Elaine's work was brightly coloured and documentary-like in its style. Was it a conscious decision to break away from the grunge-filled aesthetic of the 90s? ''No, I just would never have gone for that. I was a Skinhead; we dressed smart. We had Mods, Rockers, and Skinheads, we didn't have grunge. It was all about working class kids dressing smart when they're not at work. I would have never have gone for dirty hair or grunge looks, it was about looking sharp.''
In some sense, Elaine's career has come full circle; she began taking pictures of her friends and the scene they were a part of, and now she's made her first feature length film about them called Northern Soul, which is about to be released next week. Having worked on it in some form or another for all her life - living it in her youth, retelling it as an adult - it's something she holds incredibly dear to her. And so it should be; threading anecdotes about her life into a script she co-wrote with Gareth Sweeney, each character is based on real people she's met, loved, and lost along the way, from ex boyfriends to best friends, while the soundtrack is a compendium of all her favourite songs, co-curated by her old pal DJ Butch. Even some of the dancers filmed were friends from way back, still passionately into Northern Soul and still obsessively collecting records. ''Everything about it had to be just right. You have to give it the respect it deserves.''
Although it hasn't been all song and dance - over the years they lost funding, suffered delays, and, most tragically, lost one of their own this year, the brilliant Fran Franklin - the result is one of the most touching tributes to friendship, music, and passion, that cinema has seen in a long time. The sheer dedication and love with which she trained her cast of unknown actors in the art of Northern Soul dancing (although there are some cameos from Steve Coogan, Ricky Tomlinson, Christian McKay, and Lisa Stansfield) and the painstaking attention to detail in the clothes, the 70s sets, the drug scenes, is what carries the film. As Elaine tells me herself: ''you get out what you put in, you can't fuck about when it comes to Northern Soul.''
Text Tish Wienstock
Photography Amber Grace-Dixon