Elaine Constantine and her debut feature film Northern Soul, ejection came in waves, and it was relentless. First it was the gatekeepers of the various UK film funds, then, once she’d scraped together the production budget, it was the turn of film festival programmers. Distributors either failed to turn up to screenings, or politely passed. By the time Universal, who did finally bite, told Constantine the film would go to DVD a mere three days after theatrical release, she’d reached her lowest ebb.
Constantine has been a fan of heavy-beat, fast-tempo American soul since her teen years in Bury, Lancashire.
Too young to visit Wigan Casino, which shut it doors in 1981 when she was 15, she spent the mid-80s criss-crossing the country to all-nighters and scooter rallies from the Isle of Wight to Rhyl. By the time she was in a position to think about capturing northern soul in a feature-length documentary, the scene looked very different in one important respect.
“It wasn’t quite so sexy any more,” says Constantine, sitting in her north London basement kitchen. “Everyone was in their 30s and 40s. It didn’t look belting, with all these really young skinny lads and great dancing girls. I thought: I’ve got to re-create it.”
Constantine had a slow start: she failed her 11-plus, did badly at secondary school, and was then “in the dunce class” at Rochdale art college. “I wasn’t engaged,” she remembers. “I didn’t have that spark. All I wanted to do was go to all-nighters, be on my scooter, and spray scooters.” It was an amateur photography class, and the encouragement of a teacher, that began the turnaround. Eventually she moved to London, and caught the attention of The Face in the mid-90s. With grunge and heroin chic on the wane, the time was right for her style.
“I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but my work was mod-inspired,” she says now. “The mod ethos is about turning out smart. You’ve got nothing, you’ve got a shit job, but you iron your clothes and you polish your shoes. Dressing up and going out at the weekend is a very working-class thing, because people are in dirty clothes all week, and that’s what they do. The way I saw photography, it was a mod way of looking at it. It’s aspirational, clean, people being confident, there are no victims. That was just my experience of being from a working-class background: no, they’re not going to be dirty, they won’t be against a radiator. They’ll be on a clean car!”
Italian, French and American Vogue came knocking, and youth-oriented fashion brands such as Diesel, Wrangler and American Eagle were queuing up for the photographer’s casting instincts and directing ability, capturing an unposed energy and sexiness while executing images with bright, attractive commerciality.
Constantine was asked by one of her clients, Japanese department store Parco, to make a couple of commercials: “That was the leap forward: oh God, I can direct. I don’t have to be holding the camera. You can get someone else to worry about the lighting and the sound.” Short films and miniature documentaries of northern soul events followed. Then she summoned up the confidence to embark on her feature script, following a seven-week stint at online screenwriting programme Writers Boot Camp. Based heavily on personal experiences and those of her friends, Constantine came up with an unadorned youth-culture buddy bromance, fuelled by good old-fashioned sex, drugs, retro fashion and athletic dancing.
As the release date for Northern Soul neared, it became evident that the theatrical run was not going to be a damp squib after all. Multiplex chains require a 17-week theatrical window prior to DVD release to book a film, so Odeon, Vue and Cineworld were all out of the picture. But Constantine and pals blew up a storm on social media; fans besieged their local cinemas with emails demanding to play it; and sub-distributor Munro was able to book the film into 88 venues on opening weekend, crashing the UK box-office top 10.
With £744,000 to date, Northern Soul boasts the biggest UK box office of any film that was simultaneously available on DVD. Universal has so far sold more than 100,000 copies on disc.
But it’s the validation of Bafta – Constantine is nominated for outstanding British debut – that is really putting the film-maker on the map globally. She is now juggling offers of representation from talent agents in London and Los Angeles, while film producers are asking to meet to attach her to completed scripts. It’s a tale of final-act underdog triumph that’s every bit as satisfying as the most brazenly audience-pleasing scripted drama.
Today, reminiscing about the dark days when Constantine and her husband Marco, a photographers’ agent, were sinking ever bigger sums of their own money into the film to keep it afloat, she only has positive things to say. “We’re not regretting any of it. Because we’ve got this amazing film. You think about it: for 20-odd years, I’ve been dancing to somebody else’s tune. I’ve been shooting commercial work, and I’ve been doing what an art director and the client tell me. I’ve brought something to each shoot, but for the first time in my career, every single thing that I want to happen, that goes through that lens, that comes out of those speakers, is what I wanted. I didn’t compromise. I had a brilliant journey, very stressful in part. All these wonderful people have come with me on the journey. It’s just been the richest time of my life, and for Marco as well. And to get the film out there and then see it fill up in every cinema is just the most amazing thing you could ever hope to achieve.”