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comes to an end, and despite an impressive impact on young people for whom Steve is, for once, a role model, his bus is withdrawn and he has to face the reality of a life lived on payday loans and working a job that bores him.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

© Allan Hunter / Screen Daily / June 08, 2018

Sean McAllister follows up A Syrian Love Story with an eye-opening look at his hometown of Hull

The hopes and hardships of one individual reflect wider issues within modern Britain in A Northern Soul. The latest documentary from A Syrian Love Story director Sean McAllister confirms his longstanding ability to bring out all the humanity in stories of everyday lives. The Sheffield Doc/Fest world premiere should be the start of a healthy festival journey for a film that was made for UK TV channel BBC2 and seems a natural fit for small screen viewing.

McAllister was selected as the Creative Director for the opening event of Hull’s time as UK City Of Culture in 2017. He returned to his hometown, moving back in with his elderly parents and confronting a city desperately in need of renewal and regeneration. He also made contact with Steve Arnott, a warehouse worker hoping that the City Of Culture might provide the impetus for him to realise his long simmering artistic dreams.

Arnott wants to use his hip hop talents in service to the city’s children. A bus is converted into a mobile music recording studio that visits primary schools with the aim of inspiring the pupils and boosting their self confidence. We are told that one in three children in Hull live in poverty. Arnott is the flip side of a City Of Culture marked by grand events and celebrity support. He is very much the odd man out in the celebrations, pushed to the edges of civic events and media gatherings. “There are not a lot of people here who need to be up at half past four to go to work,” he observes.

McAllister follows Arnott as he attempts to make his Beats Bus a success story. His working life, financial position, personal circumstances and debts all speak of a working-class Britain blighted by insecurity and suffering the long-term impact of austerity cuts and industrial decline. McAllister’s father is enjoying retirement after a lifetime of employment in a city that once flourished, and his pension is more than Arnott now earns.

McAllister’s style is deceptively casual as he merely seems to follow Arnott around, allowing the viewer to become intimately immersed in his life. A string of conversations and seemingly banal questions prompt Arnott to talk movingly about his desire to be a good parent, his passion for the Beats Bus project and his fears for the future. The more you know him, the more you want him to find a way for music and culture to provide him with an escape route. “The camera became my bus out of Hull, “ observes McAllister, acknowledging the personal connection to his subject.

McAllister has a real eye for fascinating characters, focusing in on some of the charismatic children that Arnott chooses as part of the Beats Bus crew. Eight year-old Blessing is priceless, a natural born charmer who is funny and vulnerable and could have walked straight out of a Shane Meadows film or a Peter Kay television series. You could happily watch an entire documentary about him.

A Northern Soul is about individuals and aspirations but it also becomes a film that speaks of poverty, class, a Britain in transition and what hope there is of a better future. That might feel like a tall order but McAllister delivers with confidence in his material and the conviction that ordinary lives matter.

See the original review on the Screen Daily website