Young Soul Rebels Review
It's the summer of 1977. The Queen is about to celebrate her silver jubilee, but not everyone thinks that there is something to celebrate. Out of this disaffection comes the punk, soul and funk scenes. A small part of this are mixed-race Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and black Caz (Mo Sesay), two friends who run a pirate soul/funk radio station out of a friend's garage. Caz, who is gay, has a white boyfriend, Billibud (Jason Durr), while Chris, trying to break into the music industry, meets Tracy (Sophie Okonedo). Meanwhile, the murder of a gay black man while out cruising causes tensions in the community.
Isaac Julien, born 1960, trained as a visual artist and he still is one, as well as a filmmaker. (He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001.) His first films, such as the documentary Looking for Langston, were aimed at arthouse audiences, and much of his work since (including further documentaries Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask, Baadasssss Cinema and Derek, his tribute to the late and highly influential film director Jarman) has been so aimed. Young Soul Rebels, however, enjoyed a somewhat larger budget and a wider release than it might otherwise have had, and it gained a wider release than most BFI (co-)productions. Given that, there seems to have been an effort to widen the film's appeal. The script (by Paul Hallam, Derrick Saldaan McClintock and Julien) uses a thriller plot – the murder investigation, and in particular a vital tape recording – as a line to hang on what are clearly the film's real interests and angles: its evocation of the period and its politics, racial, sexual and social. As such the film feels a little compromised, if understandably so, and it is also flawed by some weak performances, but it has an energy and attitude that's hard to deny and makes the film hold up well enough today. It also has a fine soundtrack, a mixture of punk, funk and gay disco (Sylvester's “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real”).
The two young stars, Nonyela and Sesay, do well enough, and have continued their acting careers since, the latter sometimes billing himself as “Moe Sessay”. However, in her debut, is a real star in the making – Sophie Okonedo, who would go on to be Oscar-nominated for her role in Hotel Rwanda. Frances Barber, who was a frequent face in British indies in the late 80s, has less to do in a smallish role as Chris's mother. Nina Kellgren's camerawork is another plus: she has continued to collaborate with Julien, most recently on Derek. You can see Julien's artist's eye at work, though to his credit, the effect is not as studied as it can be in other films made by artists.
With the Silver Jubilee in the distant past, and even the Golden Jubilee a fading memory (and we're three years away from the Diamond Jubilee as I write this), Young Soul Rebels does capture a time and place and does so quite well. Sadly and perhaps inevitably, many of its concerns are still relevant.
Young Soul Rebels is released by the BFI on a dual-layered DVD encoded for all regions.
The DVD transfer is anamorphic in a ratio of 1.78:1, with a very thin black matting line at the bottom. The original aspect ratio would have been 1.85:1. The transfer was created from a HD scan from a 35mm interpositive, and looks just fine. Colours are vivid – especially the reds - and blacks solid. There's some grain (particularly noticeable in the twilight-shot opening credits sequence) but I suspect that's down to the original film and it looks natural to me.
The film was made two or three years too early for digital soundtracks, and it played in cinemas in Dolby SR. The DVD has an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 soundtrack, which plays in surround. It's a rich and full-sounding mix, and the music (the main beneficiary of the surround) sounds great. Full marks to the BFI for using uncompressed audio where possible on their DVDs. The Dolby 2.0 mix on the trailer sounds positively weedy by comparison.
The only extra on the disc is the aforementioned trailer (2:12). English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for this as well as for the feature.
The booklet with this DVD runs to 24 pages plus covers. Stephen Bourne leads off with an essay, but the real meat follows. Julien cowrote a book with Colin MacCabe, Diary of a Young Soul Rebel, which was published in 1991 to coincide with the film release, and the booklet reprints a long, slightly revised extract from it, along with Julien's new preface from 2009. The booklet concludes with film credits, a two-page Julien biography by B. Ruby Rich, and transfer notes.