A Northern Soul (reviews)
© Charlie Phillips / The Guardian / June 08, 2018
Class and chance collide in Sean McAllister’s brilliant Sheffield Doc/Fest opening film, as young performers are guided through their home’s transformational year as UK city of culture
Hull has always loomed large in Sean McAllister’s documentary film-making. In fact he’s probably the only film-maker who bothers to pay attention to it. He’s returned to his home town previously in his films, but this time it’s at a crucial moment in Hull’s rebirth, its year as UK city of culture in 2017. Having acted as creative director of the event’s opening ceremony, there was a risk he would make something uncritically celebratory. Instead, A Northern Soul is a great work of radical empathy, in which the economic difficulties of the city and the contradictions of regeneration through culture are visible alongside a testament to the charm and strength of personality of the city’s residents.
This is the tale of Steve, a low-wage warehouse operative with a love for hip-hop and a dream to take a musical bus around council estates and schools potentially untouched by the cultural hubs in the centre of Hull. When his employer becomes a major sponsor of the city of culture, Steve takes the opportunity to request a bus on loan from them. The “Beats Bus” is born, as is a new hope for Steve, stuck in a job that he feels imprisoned by and doesn’t pay enough to service his spiralling debts.
He gathers a crew of young children to be his hip-hop performers, and together they write and perform stories of life in Hull, including some impressively researched information about the city’s role in abolishing slavery. Steve takes two young boys in particular under his wing, Harvey and Blessing. Their emotional highs and lows are as much as the story here as Steve’s. Thoughtful and sensitive young boys, their overwhelming feelings of being given a chance to express themselves through a microphone will melt hearts. This, it’s clear, is what authentic multicultural British culture is all about. When the year comes to an end, and despite an impressive impact on young people for whom Steve is, for once, a role model, his bus is withdrawn and he has to face the reality of a life lived on payday loans and working a job that bores him.
This is not a story we see enough, despite the heritage of British documentary in this space – a deeply explored character journey through poverty in which those affected tell their own stories with dignity and respect. We don’t see it enough because there aren’t many other film-makers like McAllister, himself from a working-class background and having worked in a warehouse. Despite years away, he has a clear connection with, and understanding of, Steve and those around him, allowing lesser-heard voices of northern England to speak without fear of judgment or pity.
This is a documentary in which the mechanics of poverty in modern Britain are clear to see – even on a regular wage, it’s impossible for Steve to care for his daughter without calling on credit and loans. But that doesn’t mean the city of culture festival is irrelevant to people like him, as more sneering ends of the media suggested last year. On the contrary, his entrepreneurial model for the Beats Bus shows real business skill. More importantly, it shows that everyone benefits from organising and showcasing their own idea of culture.
As usual in his documentaries, McAllister is a prominent off-screen presence, guiding us through the year with voiceover and gently prodding Steve and his proteges to open up about their feelings. We even meet his elderly parents, who become two of the stars of the film and clearly love having him around – mum ironing the director’s underpants determinedly and displaying a fine line in dour humour. They insist on taking a trip to a “gay tea party” and visit four or five cultural events a week during the year of festivities. The McAllisters are a great advertisement for the impact of Hull’s time in the spotlight, but it’s clear they’re from a previous generation where stronger unions, more secure jobs for life and a cheaper cost of living meant they benefited from a social contract that Steve’s generation have lost.
A Northern Soul functions brilliantly on both a political and emotional level. At no point is anyone patronised or pitied, and much of British TV and film could learn a lot from how McAllister makes films about poverty and working-class characters. This film may not be the most beautiful looking or sounding film, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a personal cry for social mobility of the kind McAllister himself benefited from, and a demonstration that given an opportunity, northern working-class people can and will make and engage in culture for themselves. Ultimately uplifting and hopeful, it’s a documentary that some sections of London-based media would learn a lot about the rest of the country from by watching and listening to.
See the original review on The Guardian website