Joe McCain (Martin Compston) is a young man in the slump of his life – not educated enough to escape from his rural village in Nowheresville up North, and has found nothing in his life to stir passion, other than girls. A gorgeous hairdresser, Jane (Nicola Burley) catches his eye, as does her collection of Northern Soul badges and records and in a weak attempt to impress her, attempts to bluff his way into the scene. Before long, Soul music becomes his life, with weekly trips to the Wigan Casino to manage. Drugs are a natural extension to this life style.
Compston is an affable, engaging actor, easily the most interesting performance in the movie – mixing swagger and vulnerability well. Initially dancing with the grace of a pig stuck with a cattle-prod, he convinces as a man who’s just found his creative outlet. Felicity Jones as Mandy – Joe’s art-school wannabe friend – is also impressive, with an affable mix of Zooey Deschanel cuteness and girl-next-door amiability. They are excellent at bouncing off one another.
The rest of the cast are a mixed bag: the record shop owner Dee Dee is a funny caricature of aging hippy and daft businessman. Nicola Burley as Jane is as cool and lifeless as an iceberg, with far less under the surface. The one-note pantomime villainy also disappoints, Joe’s wifebeating customer is a sneering nitwit, and the chief preening peacock on the dancefloor has nothing going on, other than being a twat.
Ultimately, SoulBoy is a strange, lifeless work. Its script is crammed with cliche, stock characters, crummy gags and screenwriting formula (one can almost hear Robert McKee bellowing in the background!) to such an extent, not even an excellent lead performance can save it. If you think of the obvious stories of romance, coming of age, overcoming adversity, the usual stuff, and dress it into a script without the wit to back it up – you’re on the right track.
It has a good go at getting the period right. The details are there, the costumes are just the right shade of cool and crap: the bright red tank top leading the girls to dub him “a right little Soul Boy” and the startlingly awful suits. The set-design is great, capturing the late 70s Northern Soul movement very well, and the Wigan Casino has been rejuvenated superbly.
The movie is competently made, but the script stifles and sinks the otherwise good work. Billy Elliot on uppers, this ain’t.