Elaine Constantine has directed a film which recalls the 1970s heyday of Northern Soul. A committed clubber herself, she has come through years of highs and lows to bring her passion to the screen
It is my first experience of time travel, and a little unsettling. It is a grey autumn morning in 2012 when we park near the Swinton Palais, a faded dance hall in Salford, but when I walk inside I am transported to the middle of the night, some time around 1975.
A DJ, fag in mouth, sideburns creeping down to his jowls, is playing pounding 1960s soul by rarely heard US artists such as Sam Dees or the Salvadores, and the dance floor is packed with fans who know every lyric, every beat, greeting each record like a long-lost friend.
A fug hangs over the room, and the smell is one that clubbers across the world will recognise: cigarettes and alcohol mixed with sweat and rampant teenage hormones. The girls are dressed in flat shoes to enable fancy footwork, and full skirts designed to fan out to maximum effect when they spin to the music.
The boys wear wide, high-waisted flares and are punctuating their athletic footwork with jaw-dropping acrobatic drops, splits, kicks and spins. The style is Bruce Lee meets B-boy – although if breakdancing has been invented yet, very few people outside the Bronx know it.
Then suddenly the record stops, Elaine Constantine strides into the middle of the floor to talk to one of her actors, and I remember that although this feels like a club in every way, I am on a film set. A slight woman dressed in jeans and a flat cap, she instantly quiets the hundreds of extras.
Northern Soul is her film: she wrote it, she is directing it, and a lot of her own money funded it. But as Antonia Thomas, the film’s female lead, will say to me later, it is more than that. ‘She lived and breathed it. No one will make this more authentic than her.’
Constantine grew up in Bury, one of a string of Northern industrial towns that nurtured the underground soul movement her film pays tribute to. Born out of the 1960s Mod scene at a Manchester club called the Twisted Wheel, Northern Soul started as a homage to the pop/soul sound of Motown, but then DJs began seeking out rarer tracks on other labels, turning obscure B-sides into dance floor favourites and flying to America to seek out forgotten songs, even sometimes tracks that were never released.
DJs who found a real gem would cover up the record’s label to stop others finding it, so the only way to hear the rarest tracks was by dancing to them at amphetamine-fuelled all-nighters in venues such as the Casino in Wigan, the Mecca Ballroom in Blackpool and the Golden Torch in Stoke.
‘In the 70s, youth clubs in working-class towns like Bury, Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley and Rochdale were a hotbed for Northern Soul,’ Constantine says. ‘In every youth club, there was a DJ aspiring to get on that scene, and a few older kids who’d been to Wigan Casino or to the Torch or whatever, and knew the dance moves. They were the ones that inspired me. They were really on fire, and doing something I’d not seen before. It was a bit of a secret, this scene, so that was exciting. And then there was the music. The people singing, I believed them. This melancholy but uptempo music just got to me.’