Monday, 27 July 2015

Young Soul Rebels (1991)

Artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien's first commercial, narrative feature film Young Soul Rebels was borne from a desire to depict the various youth movements around the Queen's Silver Jubilee of 1977, a time of great jingoistic pride, belligerent chauvinism and the counter narrative regarding the confusion for many young people, specifically ethnic minorities, regarding national identity and where their place in this anniversary celebrating Britain actually was.

Received wisdom is of course that the only counter narrative that mattered at that time was punk but Julien, who was there, knows differently and manages to place the spotlight specifically on black popular culture of that time and the underground movement of soul and funk music, as well as the gay scene at that time and shatters the myth that disco or dance music was a redundant white capitalist invention that punk would have you believe. 

The film focuses on two soul boys and lifelong friends, straight mixed race Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and gay black Caz (Mo Sesay) who run a pirate radio station from a friend's garage and are keen to get ahead and introduce their mixture of soul and funk to more and more people in the London area - an area which is reaching boiling point thanks to the forthcoming Jubilee celebrations and the murder of a local gay black man (and mutual friend of Chris and Caz) out on the heath and its subsequent bullish police investigation. 

On its release Young Soul Rebels was compared favourably to Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, though in the long run one suspects this did more damage than good. It's certainly true that Julien shares some of Lee's traits and talents, but he also has a touch of Hanif Kureishi about him too, and he is - like Kureishi - specifically a vibrant and vital storyteller of a culturally and ethnically diverse London. It's a beautifully directed film too, capturing the period and the summery vibe well (though its just as nostalgic now for an audience for the 1991 it was filmed in) and recreating the varying youth movements (punk, racist skinheads, soul boys, the gay scene) all jostling for street space with a variety of astute costume choices and social sentiments within the script.

You could argue, with that latter statement, that Julien and his writing partners Paul Hallam and Derrick Saldaan McClintock are perhaps too guilty of using these characters to make political points but I think, on the whole, they do it authentically and naturalistically rather than place their creations upon soapboxes to instruct and inform its audience. For example, a scene where Chris' Radio PR girlfriend Tracy, played by Sophie Okonedo, chastises and challenges Caz's punk white boyfriend Billibud (Jason Durr) for his belief that the dance music of soul, funk and disco is a capitalist distraction by pointing out that paying twenty pounds for the infamous Westwood designed Cowboys T-Shirt he is wearing is making him more of a capitalist puppet than her is particularly amusing and astute. 

It is true to say though that the murder mystery subplot, based on an episode from Saldaan McClintock's life and included at the behest of by head of production Colin McCabe to give the film more story, isn't wholly successful and with its almost Blow-Out style investigation on Chris' part,  occasionally distracts from the rest of the narrative and what Julien really wants to say. You also don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out the mystery itself, as its evident pretty much immediately. Where it does impress is in highlighting the racist and homophobic tensions created by the subsequent police investigation and its impact on minority communities.

For me, it's a shame that the production didn't see the real story playing out before their eyes, namely that of Chris' love for Tracy coming between him and Caz. It's clear, specifically from Mo Sesay's beautifully layered performance, that Caz is trying to come to terms with that fact that his friend and soul partner is straight and therefore not the love he has perhaps harboured even since their childhood. There's a coming-of-age plot here begging to be fleshed out in the great traditions of those 'nothing could be the same again after this summer' dramas, and it would have been great to explore just why this apolitical gay soul boy falls for a white Socialist Worker selling punk in Billibud - is it a rebound thing or are his feelings much deeper? - but Julien all too often muffs it, leaving it tragically sidelined. 

Nevertheless this is a great little film somewhat overlooked now which adequately explores this time in British culture and, with a genuine thought provoking style, asks some important questions. It also has, naturally, a sublime soundtrack featuring the likes of the great Roy Ayers, Funkadelic, Sylvester, Junior Marvin and X-Ray Specs. 

Erotic, vibrant, political and great fun, it goes straight into my best first watched of 2015 - even though I vaguely and hazily recall snippets of it on TV some time in the 90s.


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