A Northern Soul [Documentary] (2018) – Film Review
Director: Sean McAllister
by James Robinson
A Northern Soul opens on the faces of a group of primary school kids in Hull. Off-screen we hear their teacher introducing a special guest: a man has come to teach them how to write songs. The kids stare at him wide-eyed, stunned to be in the presence of a celebrity.
The camera then swerves on to Steve Arnott, who turns out to be an unlikely looking star: a big man in his early forties, his cliff-like face, framed by old-school sailor-tatts, beams at the class from above a baggy track-suit. It’s the kind of face that would give you a heart attack if you spotted it on a dimly lit street, but the kids are too young to have developed such prejudices, and within a few minutes he’s encouraged them to create some rhymes of their own, which they belt out as he raps along cheerfully.
Arnott, it immediately becomes clear, might look like a bulldog but he has the heart of a poodle. Despite – or maybe because of – a rough life and some tough luck, he’s a community spirited sort of feller. A factory worker whose main loves in life are his daughter and hip-hop, Arnott was already a volunteer at youth centre the Warren when he came up with the idea of the ‘Beats Bus’, a travelling music studio that he could take to schools in the more deprived areas of the city and provide the kids there with an opportunity to flex their creative muscles, sharing with them his love and talent for rap music.
“Something of an outsider”
This Beats Bus would probably have remained nothing more than a pipe dream were it not for Hull being awarded the title of City of Culture in 2017. By fate or fortunate coincidence, the factory where Arnott worked turned out to be a major sponsor of the event, and he was able to persuade his employers to provide him with the means to make his dream a reality. Somewhere along the way he also crossed paths with award-winning documentary maker Sean McAllister (best known for A Syrian Love Story), who quickly became interested in following the fortunes of this endearing, faintly quixotic figure.
Arnott must have been one of the few ‘ordinary’ citizens of Hull to have been granted such an opportunity. That he is a something of an outsider is emphasised early on in the film, when we see him standing alone among dozens of worthies at a City of Culture gathering taking place in a swanky bistro. Everyone apart from him, Steve observes, ‘looks like they don’t have to be at work at 4:30 in the morning.’
Nevertheless, the Beats Bus quickly establishes itself as a success. Arnott and a couple of other (apparently camera shy) collaborators round up a gang of talented youngsters to promote the project, appearing at festivals and on local news, even auditioning for Britain’s Got Talent. But while the Beats Bus drives from triumph to triumph, Arnott finds his personal life rapidly veering off course: estranged from his wife, he’s living with his mother; an unforgiving work schedule keeps him from seeing his daughter; and despite working all-hours at the factory his finances are in a constant state of jeopardy.
“Invested in his local community”
None of this is helped by his employer’s apparent ambivalence over the whole project. Keen to be seen as a major contributor to City of Culture, they are nevertheless apparently resentful of the Beats Bus’ success. Arnott is accused of reduced commitment to the job, with accompanying dock in pay. Meanwhile, some dubious infraction on the shop floor leads to him being put ‘under investigation’ and, ultimately, demoted. Most infuriatingly, at the end of the year the company recalls the vehicle and donates the musical equipment to a local school, the management no doubt giving themselves a pat on the back for their magnanimity.
Arnott, phlegmatic as ever, jokes that it’s been more trouble than it was worth, but it’s clearly a major blow.
All of this could have made for depressing viewing, but Arnott’s good nature and the evident pleasure and enthusiasm he brings to his project shines through. The positive effects of his work are made clear as we follow a couple of his most charismatic protégés; the easy-going Blessing, who instantly proves a natural on stage, and the lively but troubled Harvey, who is brightened and softened by Steve’s mentoring.
Arts-council projects are dominated by ideas like the Beats Bus, but Arnott distinguishes himself by being genuinely of and invested in his local community. One of the things that makes his project a success, particularly when working with street-wise kids who might naturally scorn such things, is the lack of any whiff of condescension or worthiness.
The film too, shares this quality, remaining unflinching as it follows the ups, downs and further downs of Arnott’s eventful 2017. McAllister, the seasoned reporter, is not shy about pressing his subject about his travails, but never patronises him, and Arnott responds in the same agreeably blunt fashion. McAllister must have seen something of himself in Steve, having in a past life also been a factory worker whose creative instincts eventually led him onto a more fulfilling path.
Comic touches are also provided by the inclusion of the film-maker’s fussy mother and bewildered father as they good-naturedly make the most of the City of Culture events. They reveal a stark contrast in fortunes for two generations of the working classes. McAllister’s parents, brought up in an era of final-salary pensions and a vanished concept of the social contract, are living comfortably in the suburbs; a future that’s unlikely for people like Steve, despite a dogged determination to get along in life.
That Arnott is at risk of going under, despite wholeheartedly playing the game, working the overtime and putting something back into the community, exposes the flaw in that modern ideology that distinguishes between strivers vs skivers in British society. Arnott is nothing if not a striver, and by highlighting his plight A Northern Soul proves itself one of this year’s most essential films.