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Review: A Northern Soul


- Opening Sheffield Doc/Fest, the new film by A Syrian Love Story director Sean McAllister is a look at Hull, the 2017 UK City of Culture

Review: A Northern Soul

The voiceover by documentarian Sean McAllister at the start of A Northern Soul, screening at the 2018 Sheffield Doc/Fest, describes a British city in crisis. The port town of Hull was once known as the gateway to Europe, but after eight years of austerity and a confusing Brexit vote, it is at a crossroads. There is a beacon of hope: in 2017, Hull was the UK City of Culture, an event that takes place once every four years, and which promotes arts and culture as a means of celebration and regeneration. The event was created in the aftermath of the significant social and economic benefits witnessed in Merseyside after Liverpool was named the 2008 European Capital of Culture.

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Following a similar template to his award-winning A Syrian Love Story [+see also:
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(2015), McAllister seeks out a small personal story within a greater political context, and also finds time to insert himself into the picture as well. His vessel is Steve Arnott, a factory worker who has persuaded his company, Arco, to provide him with a bus and sound equipment as part of the City of Culture celebrations so that he can fulfil his dream of creating a Beats Bus, which would travel to schools and areas of social housing to encourage poor kids to express themselves through hip-hop. In a voiceover that peppers the film, McAllister informs us that one in three children growing up in Hull does so in poverty. 

Most of the movie concentrates on Steve. It’s a sympathetic portrait, as we learn that he has moved back into his mother’s home after the breakdown of his second marriage, and he only sees his daughter every other weekend, if that. Steve is in financial meltdown, as he has racked up debts by taking out payday loans, and his job is under threat to boot. But despite all his problems, he still has a heart of gold. His work on the Beats Bus has amazing results, and he is really invested in improving the lives of the eight children who make up the Beats Bus Crew. McAllister’s affinity with Steve stems from his own background: like Steve, he is from Hull. McAllister goes to his own parents’ home and uses them to show how the city and Britain itself afforded more opportunity to his parents’ generation. The director tells us how he left school at 16 and worked in a factory for nine years, before he found an escape making movies. 

A Northern Soul is a celebration of the power of art to transform lives set against the backdrop of austerity and difficult working conditions. Steve is representative of the crisis of an entire city, a working-class man who seems to be left behind by the wine-bar crowd; nonetheless, he still dreams big.

The problem is, the film lacks a killer punch. McAllister often sacrifices proficient camerawork for an ability to get intimate moments, and there is an absence of the epic scope and the elements of surprise that made A Syrian Love Story such a transformative experience. So much of the drama seems to happen off-screen, big events are talked about and not seen, and McAllister is seemingly reluctant to embark on investigative journalism or turn over too many stones, which is frustrating in what is otherwise a timely essay on “Broken Britain”. 

A Northern Soul is a 10ft Films production for the BFI and BBC 2, in association with Sharp House.

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