Soulboy, or How to miss an opportunity

A film set in the ecstatic world of Northern Soul. Mmm, sounds good. Recreating Wigan Casino in its early seventies heyday. Keep talking. Great music, great dancing, great sex. Okay, I’m in. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in the case of the British low-budget feature ‘Soulboy‘, everything, apart from the music and the dancing and Nicola Burley’s radiant smile – which is still imprinted on my retina the morning after.

It’s a missed opportunity.

The film hits on every genre clichè as eagerly as its adolescent hero chases the girl of his dreams, and both end up falling flat on their faces. That sounds a bit harsh, I know, but really, as far as I’m concerned, ‘if you’re gonna sell out, you’d better make it sell.’ (‘Soulboy‘ premiered at Edinburgh last year and crept onto the home entertainment market in January.)

So, what happened? Did the script start out shallow and generic, making all the familiar moves, or was it pushed? Is this really the film the writer wanted? Did it ever know what it wanted to be?

A script is most vulnerable in the early stages, when it’s young and foolish, not strong enough to stand up for itself. It is then that it can be led astray. Or bullied. And if it gets lost or bullied, confidence can drain away.

Soulboy‘ feels like a film whose script was led up an alley and kicked in the balls. And then bought dinner. Or maybe the other way round.

There is too much plot. Too much action. No room for insight. That’s a weakness in a romantic coming-of-age story.

Let’s work backwards. [Spoilers.] The hero finally chooses the sweet, sensitive girl, over the beautiful, mendacious one. Too late. She’s accepted a place at Art School in Nottingham and she’s leaving – right now! So, far so good. Bittersweet. He will propose to come along with her. She will refuse. They will promise to wait for each other. After all, they will always have the Wigan Casino and Northern Soul. But no, this is not what happens. What happens is he says something about needing to get away, she smiles, and they run for the coach. Freeze frame. This is not an optimistic ending, it’s delusional.

Somehow the makers have decided that what this boy needs is not to choose and appreciate real love over lust and pride as represented by the two girls. For them what he needs is ‘to get away’ – as well as choosing the right girl. This betrays a lack of confidence in the material because, for the purposes of the story, only one of these is required. They try to bolster this ‘getting away’ conclusion with a sub-plot which ends with the guy’s boss returning to Ireland with the wife of a brutish customer, but the tenderness of their affair underscores the glibness of the main plot. These two have an urgent reasons to leave: he is abused for being Irish and she is the victim of domestic violence – conveniently the aggressor is the same in both cases. (It would’ve been more effective if the two stories were reversed with the youngsters’ naive departure inspiring the older, illicit couple to action.)

There’s worse. The climax pits our guy against the Wigan Casino’s alpha-male, the dream girl’s boyfriend, in a dance-off. This from a different film. You know, the one in which a kid gets back in the saddle and overcomes their demons/disappointments by excelling some activity or other (dancing, skating, skiing, frying eggs). In these films, you sometimes get a romantic sub-plot. In ‘Soulboy‘, you get two main plots for the price of one. All you have to do, it seems, is retro-fit the story with some mention of our hero having been a prize-winning ice-skater, though never a winner because – and this is important – he couldn’t lock on to his focal point to master the spin. Yes, you guessed it. He wins the dance-off when he masters the spin. Again, lack of confidence in the material.

I could go on, but here’s my theory.

The producer liked the idea of making a film set in the world of Northern Soul, recreating the Wigan Casino, etc. but she knew what the distributors would want and steered the project towards the coming-of-age genre. The writer obliged, but had lost his confidence. He got together with the director, though, and rekindled his enthusiasm by kitting the plot out with as much of the paraphernalia of the genre as they could, all the while tapping their feet to a hard soul soundtrack. This took six years and twelve to fourteen drafts.

Yet they never noticed the irony of contriving such a mainstream story from a music scene which celebrated the rare and obscure and sneered at the popular.

There’s not much sex in it either.

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