Young Soul Rebels (1991) – Film Review


Director: Isaac Julien
Cast: Valentine Nonyela, Mo Sesay, Dorian Healy
Certificate: 18

By Sarah Morgan

I’m no longer young (more’s the pity), I’ve never been what you might call a soul fanatic and I’m far too much of a scaredy cat to be rebellious. So I did wonder if artist and film maker Sir Isaac Julien’s second feature-length movie as a director would sing to me in any way.

Although I’ve got little in common with any of the main protagonists, I’m pleased to say that because at its heart is the universal story of battling against the odds to achieve something, yes, it did.


The story takes place against the backdrop of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 and begins with the brutal murder of TJ, a young black man cruising in an East London park. His friend Caz is distraught, but their mutual pal Chris, with whom Caz runs a local pirate radio station from his brother’s garage, is too obsessed with achieving his dream of stardom to really take any notice – until he’s wrongly arrested for the crime by police officers who clearly couldn’t care less whether they’ve got the right man or not.

“Rather joyous scene”

Chris is in a tentative relationship with Tracy, who works for a mainstream radio broadcaster and thinks Chris may have what it takes to attract new listeners. The problem is, her bosses aren’t keen on change. Particularly if they involve a young mixed-race man. Caz, meanwhile, begins a relationship with white punk Billibud.

These multiple threads all come together during a post-Jubilee party, when TJ’s murderer reveals himself, and ends with a rather joyous scene.

The latter features black characters, white ones and a mixed-race one. Some straight, some homosexual. It’s not exactly subtle in its efforts to depict how all these different groups can live together peacefully, but maybe getting a message as important as that across needs something that hits you between the eyes, rather than leaving things open to interpretation.


“Over the top”

Valentine Nonyela is perhaps a little over the top as Chris, but Mo Sesay, who plays Caz, delivers a far more low-key performance that works better. Look out too for early roles for Sophie Okonedo, Jason Durr and Eamonn Walker, while Dorian Healy and Frances Barber also appear. The soundtrack, featuring tunes by X-Ray Specs, Sylvester and many more, is certainly worth listening out for.

Part social commentary, part murder-mystery, coming-of-age drama and even musical, Young Soul Rebels won the Critics’ Prize at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival and remains a powerful depiction of Britain at a certain problematic moment in history. One that, sadly, hasn’t completely gone away. Despite the best efforts of its makers to teach its audience a valuable lesson.

Special features:
• Newly remastered in 2K by the BFI National Archive and approved by director Isaac Julien
• Newly recorded feature commentary by director Isaac Julien and director of photography Nina Kellgren, moderated by the BFI’s William Fowler
• Press materials and original script
• Image gallery
• Newly created audio description track
• Theatrical trailer
Young Soul Rebels is released on Blu-ray by the BFI, £19.99

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