The debut feature from director Isaac Julien, YOUNG SOUL REBELS is a fascinating look at British culture in the late 1970s, especially its music and politics. But it's also curiously uninvolving on an emotional level, mainly for its awkward attempt to stuff its impulses and ideas into a
creaky genre thriller plot. Julien, whose documentary LOOKING FOR LANGSTON created controversy for its focus on poet Langston Hughes's homosexuality, seems to be looking for a middle ground here between provoking and pleasing a wide audience that is only partially successful.
Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and Caz (Mo Sesay) are two boyhood friends struggling to establish themselves in London's underground music scene during the late 1970s through their "Soul Patrol" pirate radio station, operated out of the back room of an East End garage. Upending stereotypes from the
outset, gay Caz is quiet, stable and dresses conservatively while straight Chris is stylish, flamboyant and a rabble-rouser. Caz and Chris's differing sexuality has long since ceased being an issue between them, if it ever was, yet sexual alliances they form over the course of the film carry
political implications that come to threaten their friendship.
Caz becomes involved with a radical white punk rocker who offers Caz an entree into the influential inner circles of the London club scene. Chris, meanwhile, becomes involved with Tracy (Sophie Okonedo), a production assistant with a maintream radio network, who offers Chris a chance to start a
career as a big-time deejay. When each discovers the other has career plans that don't involve him, it drives a wedge into their friendship and threatens their hard-won opportunity to co-host a protest concert against the 1977 Queen's Silver Jubilee, celebrating the 25th anniversary of her
coronation. Distracting from the main action, the thriller subplot involves the murder of a gay acquaintance of Caz and Chris, and the killer's attempts to frame Chris. At the climactic concert, fascist skinheads firebomb the stage as Chris plays a tape over the sound system unmasking the real
As might be expected from a documentary filmmaker making his entree into feature films, Julien is at his best when he simply observes his characters and their worlds, imbuing then with a behavioral realism and authenticity that make them come alive. The characters are vividly drawn. The settings
are richly detailed, giving the film's best scenes an easy spontaneity, from the minutiae of operating a pirate radio station to the social dynamics of the club scene to the subtly assertive body language of a radio executive to what it looks and feels like to be in the middle of a political
protest art event.
Where YOUNG SOUL REBELS loses direction, ironically, is when the hand of the director is most apparent in shaping the action. The thriller subplot doesn't even work on its own terms. The murder scene, which opens the film, gives Chris an ironclad alibi--he was on the air when the murder took
place--which drains suspense from his hunt for the real killer, whose identity becomes fairly obvious early in the action anyway. In other parts of the film, Julien tends to make his characters a little too preachingly schematic on a political level. Everybody here represents a sometimes too patly
defined point of view, down to the Jamaican garage owners voicing radical black separatism and the killer, carefully revealed to be a repressed homosexual.
Much on the plus side, however, Julien displays real conviction as a filmmaker and genuine affection for his boiling-pot of major characters. If his insistent political perspective sometimes tends toward tedium, he manages to assert convincingly the inseparability of the personal and the
political in the lives of his characters. And, if his suspense plotting is on the weak side, Julien shows a flair for stylish visuals and atmospheric menace, which means he may even make a crackerjack thriller someday. In the meantime, YOUNG SOUL REBELS is a promising first feature from a
filmmaker with a genuinely fresh point of view and a refreshing instinct for bringing together dissonant points of view rather than justifying their isolation. (Substance abuse, profanity, sexual situations.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: NR
- Review: The debut feature from director Isaac Julien, YOUNG SOUL REBELS is a fascinating look at British culture in the late 1970s, especially its music and politics. But it's also curiously uninvolving on an emotional level, mainly for its awkward attempt to stuf… (more)