Sunday, February 11, 2024

It's Just Me and the Boys: Isaac Julien's 1991 Queer-Punk Anthem Young Soul Rebels

(Isaac Julien, UK/Germany/France/Spain, 1991, 105 minutes) 

"I'll make tonight so funky, even the white boys will shake a leg."--Chris (Valentine Nonyela) 

Isaac Julien's sole narrative feature, Young Soul Rebels, uses the form of a murder mystery to explore what it meant to be Black and queer/queer-friendly during London's punk era. Though the genre was associated with young people, like pirate radio disc jockeys Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and Caz (Mo Sesay), its most prominent practitioners, like the Sex Pistols, were white and straight. As the title attests, Chris and Caz, both men of color, prefer soul, but the spirit of punk infuses their DIY approach to music promotion--and life. 

There's no guarantee that a film that opens with a great song will live up to it, but it's something that always puts me at ease. Set during June 1977, the film opens with Parliament's "P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)" before segueing into X-Ray Spex's "Identity," and instantly, I felt I was in good hands--even if I was a little irked that Julien didn't let the P-Funk number play out in its entirety (to be fair, it's over seven minutes long). From there, he segues into Chris's patter during "Soul Patrol," making it clear that the soundtrack's diegetic selections come primarily from the duo's radio show. 

That same year, X-Ray Spex, a punk band led by a woman of color when that wasn't the norm, released their debut, Germfree Adolescents (Julien also includes "Oh, Bondage! Up Yours" and Funkadelic's "One Nation Under a Groove"). At the time, the country was celebrating the Queen's Silver Jubilee, as acidly immortalized by the 'Pistols on the single "God Save the Queen" and in Derek Jarman's Jubilee, which featured the all-female, take-no-prisoners Slits. One part of the country was the same as it ever was, and the other--Black, queer, anti-corporate, and/or underemployed--felt disenfranchised and excluded. What had the Queen ever done for them? 

The film proper begins with Chris and Caz's friend TJ, also Black, carrying a boombox playing a recording of an episode of "Soul Patrol." 

He enters a cruiser's park at night where he meets a leather-clad white man, face unseen, who comes on to him (at that point, TJ presses "record" on his player). At first things seem okay, and then they're not when the man attacks him, grabs his boombox, and runs away. Unintentionally or otherwise, the sequence recalls William Friedkin's 1980 Cruising, not least because the leather man will reappear later. 

TJ doesn't survive the attack, and Chris and Caz are devastated. The same thing could have easily happened to Caz, who is gay. However unsteadily, life goes on. Chris longs to go legit. Radio shows and club nights are fun, but he wants to make the move to commercial radio, so he uses his chutzpah to charm DJ Jeff Kane (Ray Shell, an American actor/musician who has performed with Magazine and appears in The Apple), a soul DJ at the BBC-like Metropolitan, and his associate, Tracy (vibrant then-newcomer Sophie Okonedo, most recently of Slow Horses), a production assistant.

Though the cops investigate the murder, they do so with minimal efficiency and maximum disrespect as they ask Chris, Caz, and the friends at the garage from which they broadcast their show, including Carlton (future Oz star Eamonn Walker), questions about TJ. Not all of these young men are gay--and the garage workers prefer reggae--but all are Black. Many are also of West Indian descent and the accents, combined with the retro London slang, run hot and heavy. (Early on, I enabled closed captioning, because I didn't want to miss a word.) If you caught 1980's Babylon or Steve McQueen's 2020 Windrush anthology Small Axe, you'll feel right at home. 

Despite the fact that a homophobic murderer is on the loose and that the National Front is on the rise--as exemplified by the skinheads skulking around the council flats with their old man suspenders and Doc Martens--this isn't a grim picture. The soundtrack of bangers keeps it bumping--other acts include the Blackbyrds, Roy Ayers, the Heptones, Sylvester, Junior Murvin, and the O'Jays--but so do the moments of unadulterated joy, like Chris dressing up for a night on the town or teaching his younger sister and her friends dance moves, and Chris and Caz playing funk sides for a receptive crowd. That last sequence reminded me of the Lover's Rock section of Small Axe as the music melts everyone's cares away, at least for one night. 

While Chris cozies up to Tracy for business and pleasure, Caz connects with the socialist-leaning, Melvillesque-named Billibud (Jason Durr), a white, leather-clad punk he meets at one of their club nights. The two men even reconnect in the same park where TJ met his maker. Could Billibud be the killer? Or is it Ken (Dorian Healy), the white, anorak-clad automobile enthusiast who hangs around the garage? We never see him in leather, but there's something off about the guy. Meanwhile, Julien uses POV shots to make it clear that someone is keeping an eye on both Chris and Caz. 

Though Julien set Young Soul Rebels in the 1970s, Chris soon finds himself grappling with a very 1990s conundrum: selling out. With Tracy's pull, he has a shot at a steady paycheck, but only if he whitens up his act. He doesn't want success on those terms; he just wants to be himself and to get his own place. Caz, meanwhile, wants things to continue as they are.

Things start to go very wrong right around the time Chris finds the recording of TJ's attack. From the start, Julien suggests that the man watching the duo might even be one of the cops who hassled them at the garage. Though not every white person in the film is terrible, every cop is a racist asshole, and it's hard to imagine that they'll do the right thing if they get their hands on the tape. 

Everything comes to a head at an anti-Jubilee gathering in the park attended by energetic punks, aggressive skinheads, and a smattering of Black youth, like Tracy and Chris and Caz, who are on the outs by that point--though true soul brothers can only stay mad at each other for so long. 

If Julien eventually identifies TJ's murderer, the mystery framework proves the film's least successful aspect, more so in awkward execution than noble intent, but it's a savvy move to use genre trappings to explore a subculture, and in the end, music saves Chris and Caz as surely as it brought them together in the first place. The cops, the skinheads, the royalists, and all the other bad stuff remains bad, but they still have each other, and the final sequence suggests that they aren't as alone as they once were.

When Roger Ebert reviewed the film for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1991, he gave it a measly two stars, but when Peter Bradshaw reviewed Strand Releasing's new 4K reissue for The Guardian in 2023, he gave it four. I believe the latter hits closer to the mark. 

In addition to Young Soul Rebels, Isaac Julien, MBE, is a documentarian (Looking for Langston, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask), installation artist, film professor, and founder of the Sankofa Film and Video Collective. For all his prestigious accolades, his sole narrative feature proves that he also knew--and presumably still knows--how to have a good time, even when telling a heartfelt story rooted in identity politics and intersectionality. 

That playful side of his persona also factors into Jane Giles and Ali Caterall's SCALA!!!, a boisterous documentary about the infamous, all-night King's Cross movie palace that taught Black, queer, and otherwise outsider musicians, actors, and filmmakers, like Isaac Julien and Steve McQueen, that there was a place for them in the United Kingdom. After making the festival rounds in 2023, it should, much like this revival of Young Soul Rebels, be coming to US theaters and/or streaming services later this year.  

If you hear any noise 
It's just me and the boys.
--Bernie Worrell, George Clinton, and Bootsy Collins

Young Soul Rebels plays Northwest Film Forum Feb 14 - 21. Images from Rotten Tomatoes (Valentine Nonyela and Mo Sesay), BlogTO (Mo Sesay and Jason Durr), Out Film CT (Nonyela, Eamonn Walker, and Gary McDonald), and BFI (Nonyela and Sophie Okonedo and Julien on the set).

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