Set in 1977 at the time of the celebrations of Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee, Young Soul Rebels follows Caz (Mo Sesay) and Chris (Valentine Nonyela), two young black “soulboys” running a pirate radio station in Hackney. Chris is determined to get fame from his career and haunts the big radio station, while Caz is content to enjoy the music and see their audience grow organically, but both their lives are upended when a friend of Chris’ is murdered in a nearby park where gay men go to meet – a park Caz also frequents. What results is the fracturing of the pair’s relationship as they both pursue separate interests that are seen as contradictory to not only the success of their station but also as friends.
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Young Soul Rebels is a multi-layered picture that presents itself as a relationship drama, a treatise on race and queer issues, and a thriller that steps into neo-noir. The central quandary is a simple one, a trope even, with ambition and fame coming between old friends. However, what elevates it to something fresh is the way it’s told through race, sexuality, and identity, Caz being black and queer, and Chris being mixed race and straight in the time of punks and skinheads and the National Front. Caz dates a white punk named Billibud (Jason Durr) while Chris sees Tracy (Sophie Okonedo), a black receptionist at the radio station, and this causes friction and mistrust within the pair. Chris’ hopes are also dashed when he meets the superstar soul radio DJ at the station, only to find out he’s struggling while putting on a brave face.
The effects of the murder also radiate throughout the community, uncovering racism and homophobia. Chris’ sister finds the ghetto box of the victim, which contains a recording of the murder, but Chris doesn’t trust the police enough to hand it in, and his fears are justified when they arrest him after an anonymous tip. Their questioning is both racist and homophobic, something shared by not only parts of the white community but also the owners of the West Indian garage Caz works at, and this makes Chris more and more paranoid, especially as, in his mind, the murderer is a white punk, like Chris is seeing.
Director Isaac Julien doesn’t shy away from any of these issues and is happy to present them head-on. Both Sesay and Nonyela give fabulous performances, and there’s so much reflected in their faces: fear, anger, beauty, elation. They really anchor the film emotionally, and it’s so strong partially because of their portrayals. Nina Kellgren’s cinematography is also important, giving it a neo-noir feel leading with a fantastic opening sequence that covers the London skyline, and the framing is strong throughout, especially dealing with subjects that have constantly been under the threat of censorship, although thankfully the previous 18 rating for the film has been downgraded to a 15. What’s both amazing and disappointing is how relevant Young Soul Rebels still is in a country that seems to reject people of colour and queerness at the same time, not to mention when they intersect.
Young Soul Rebels is presented by the BFI in a new restoration from a 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative, with the master approved by Kellgren. It’s an excellent image and captures her drama-doc cinematography well, there’s something of the ’60s kitchen sink dramas about it, while the stereo soundtrack perfectly allows the thumping noise of a ton of great tracks from soul and punk at that time to breathe life into the film and integrate you into the ’70s period it inhabits.
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Supplements include a fascinating audio commentary with Julien and Kellgren, moderated by William Fowler of the BFI, along with the theatrical trailer and original press kit and script. The booklet features a number of terrific essays on the film by Alex Ramon and Stephen Bourne, as well as Julien himself.
Young Soul Rebels is an essential film that looks at the intersection of race and sexuality while using the popular trope of a murder mystery to frame those issues. It’s sadly all too relevant to today, and reflective of how far we still need to go, and for that, it’s highly recommended.
Young Soul Rebels is out on Blu-ray on 7th august from the BFI.