The North’s Got Soul… And It’s Not Just In The Soundtrack
Director Shimmy Marcus Talks To Michael Fitzpatrick About ‘Soul Boy’
There’s a healthy buzz about Dublin-born sound engineer turned writer/director Shimmy Marcus. There’s just that feeling that he may well have gone and created something quite special, and is about to unleash it onto an unsuspecting world. You see, the award-winning filmmaker will this week introduce his latest project, ‘Soul Boy’, to the American moviegoing public.
The feature film with the killer soundtrack, is set during the downtrodden days of 1970s era Britain. It revolves around the relationships of several young people who live for their Friday and Saturday nights, and their weekly fixes of all-night dancing to the non-stop beat of northern soul, an exciting brand of music, which transformed the lifestyles of thousands of working-class youths from the north of England.
It’s the story of Joe McCain, who, like so many of us, found his one part of the world where he felt he belonged, where everything clicked into place, and all was right with the universe. Joe had found Northern Soul.
Mike Fitzpatrick: ‘Soul Boy’ is set several years before most of the film’s young cast were born, how was it immersing them in the Northern Soul culture?
Shimmy Marcus: They took to it really well, I mean, for nearly all of them, it was an education. Because they’d no prior (Northern Soul) experiences, they immersed themselves completely in it. And because the music was so good, they didn’t have to work so hard to get into it, they just adored the music, and I mean, they’re just such great actors.
They did a huge amount of research, to get into it, they talked to as many people as they could, and most of them had relatives who were around (the scene) at the time, uncles and aunts and grandparents who wouldn’t shut up talking about it! So they’d no problem at all getting in touch with that whole world, you know?
MF: You’ve quite a musical background, having previously worked as a sound engineer, did such experience come in useful in directing a film where music played such an integral role?
SM: Well, it certainly helps, when you have to listen to the music a million times! But we were listening to something good.
One of the big attractions for me, was the fact that it was about a music scene, and falling in love, and something we can all relate to as teenagers, like when you find your first band, you know, where that excitement, that obsessive nature with the records, well, it’s all CDs now, comes from.
MF: There’s a great mix of acting talent involved, with young up-and-comers like Martin Compston, Nichola Burley and Alfie Allen, alongside more seasoned pros like Bruce Jones and Pat Shortt, how was it working with such a varied group?
SM: There really weren’t any problems, because they were all so totally focused on what they were doing. They got on like a house on fire, which helps. Particularly, Martin and Alfie, that friendship came through, they were joined at the hip, those two.
So, it wasn’t a big stretch for them to get into the relationships. They come from different backgrounds, Felicity Jones did a lot of theater, she just won a Best Actress at Sundance. She’s from Birmingham, so, she was kind of reared in the whole thing. They were a joy to work with.
MF: What did you initially set out to create, a film set Britain in the ’70s, that Northern Soul just happened to be a part of, or was the music scene always going to be at the forefront of the story?
SM: It actually started with the original writer Jeff Williams writing a book about the soul scene, and thought there’d be something in there.
We saw the passion he had for the scene, and if you tie that in with the raging hormones of teenagers anyway, there’s great potential for a drama there. He wrote a play then, about the scene, and about eleven years later, we finally got the film made!
MF: We’ve seen a number of great Irish and British music-related films over the years, such as Quadrophenia, The Commitments, 24-hour party people, Control and Breaking Glass, have you any particular favorites from that genre?
SM: ‘Gimme Shelter’, also (the rare and controversial Rolling Stones documentary film) ‘C***sucker Blues’, I like. It’s not a great film, but it’s extraordinary behind the scenes stuff. Any of those kind of old school films, there are a lot of interesting documentaries around at the moment.
I’ve just finished one about an Irish band called Lir. I mean, it’s kind of the story of every band, you know, that comes up short for whatever reason.
So, music documentaries, I’m a big fan of, and obviously, the one I did years ago, ‘Aidan Walsh: Master of the Universe’!
MF: With regards to casting the picture, how familiar were you with the work of the actors who eventually took on the roles?
SM: I’d have seen most of them in stuff before. I was very lucky in that I got a brilliant casting director, Shaheen Baig, because there were people like Felicity Jones, she was starring in ‘The Tempest’ with Helen Mirren, and I was just worried that her star had risen too much, you know?
So, we went after her and we got her. So we knew most of the people there, I think one or two of the smaller roles, would have been people I hadn’t worked with before, who’d just come in for an audition and blew us away. Then there was Pat (Shortt), his work speaks for itself.
MF: I first saw Martin Compston several years ago in ‘Sweet Sixteen’, that was a stunning performance.
SM: He was extraordinary. For someone who’d never acted before. What attracted me to him was, at the time he’d just signed a professional contract with a Scottish football team, so I knew he was nimble on his feet. So, he took to the (dancing) right away!
“We saw the passion he had for the scene, and if you tie that in with the raging hormones of teenagers anyway, there’s great potential for a drama there. He wrote a play then, about the scene, and about eleven years later, we finally got the film made!”
MF: It’s set during a difficult era in Britain, with industrial strikes, football hooliganism, high unemployment and other troubling social issues at the forefront, was the Northern Soul movement a form of escapism for many?
SM: I’m sure it was, I mean, that expression, “living for the weekend”, was more appropriate then than it was at any time.
For those who were lucky enough to have a job, it was usually a dead-end job. There was no, you know, “let’s go out, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday”, it was just about the weekend.
So I guess it was just pure escapism for many of them, not just the music, I guess, the drugs as well. You know, a lot of them were going crazy on speed. I think 1974, had the highest rate of chemist robberies in Britain as well, and it was all related to the northern soul thing.
People just were breaking in and getting their slimming pills and their amphetamines, and head off to the club, it was just mental! It’s also mentioned that ’74 was the time of the Guildford bombings, it was not a good time to be Irish in Britain.
MF: You’ve gone on to work with Pat Shortt in the Irish series, ‘Mattie’, is he somebody you enjoy working with?
SM: Yes, it’s not a huge role, but it’s very important. He plays Brendan, who basically works with Martin Compston’s character. They have a day job, which is delivering potatoes, and he’s kind of like an older brother character. It’s a serious role, but has its comic moments. I saw Pat in a film called ‘Saltwater’ about eight years ago.
After I saw him in that, I went up to him and said “Listen, I know you do mostly comedy, but this is more of a serious thing”, and he told me about his upcoming role in ‘Garage’. As it turned out, we didn’t end up filming for a couple of years anyway.
What’s funny is, when he came over to filming, all the other actors were like: “How’d you get Pat Shortt?” They had no idea of his comic background, ‘Killinaskully’, ‘D’Unbelievables’ and so on. They only knew him from ‘Garage’.
MF: Northern Soul’s been described, I think by yourself, as being something of a forerunner to the rave generation, how similar were the two movements do you think?
SM: I think they’re identical, except for the music. I mean, what you had in the late ’60s and ’70s, were hordes of young people getting on buses, going to secret destinations, you know, traveling through the night to get there, turning up at midnight to this incredibly loud thumping music, taking loads of pills, dancing their tits off, until eight in the morning then going to chill out on a beach by going swimming.
You know, that’s pretty much what the rave culture is! Except, the music isn’t as good unfortunately! There was no slow-sets at these events, it was just one hard-hitting song after another. They were all about two minutes twenty long, so, there were a lot of similarities.
I just find it funny, you know, all these kids in the late ’80s and ’90s, thinking themselves to be so original, it’s really just history repeating itself!
MF: The film’s got quite the soundtrack has it been released?
SM: It has, yes, it’s available. It’s just a compilation of some of the best stuff (from the film). I mean, there’s a lot of favorites I have that didn’t make it into the film, because I couldn’t make it work right to the scene. But there was such a great range to choose from.
A lot of people will hear ‘Tainted Love’ and think it’s the Soft Cell version, they don’t realize that was a cover. It’s amazing the amount of stuff, when you listen to contemporary music, how much of it is borrowed from Northern Soul.
Even on television adverts, so hopefully there’s an appetite in New York for this type of thing.
The American premier of ‘Soul Boy’, Directed by Shimmy Marcus, and starring Martin Compston, Nichola Burley, Alfie Allen, Felicity Jones and Pat Shortt, will be the feature presentation at CraicFest’s closing night gala at Tribeca Cinema, in downtown Manhattan.
The after-party will feature legendary Irish DJ BP Fallon and Shimmy Marcus spinning Northern Soul disks.