The acclaimed British filmmaker’s new film Last Night in Soho pulsates with the lure of nostalgia
Peter and Gordon’s “A World Without Love” is playing, and you enter a room where London is the epicenter of all that is groovy.
In real life, it might be the end of the second decade of the 21st century, but in this teenager’s room, there are pictures of Twiggy on the wall; there are albums by the Kinks and Cilla Black. Eloise, played by Thomasin McKenzie, dances around in delight, because even though she is far from Swinging London, chronologically and geographically, every nerve in her body is wired to the era when Sean Connery, not Daniel Craig, was James Bond, Diana Rigg was on The Avengers and not Game of Thrones, and Terry and Julie met every Friday night at Waterloo Station. Edgar Wright’s new film Last Night in Soho pulsates with the lure of nostalgia, takes Eloise on a fantastical journey, gives her a cool white leather trench coat, and then plunges her into a world that, as much as she dreamed about it, she was completely unprepared to face. It’s a pop reverie that gets turned inside out.
Wright missed out on the 1960s, but that era fascinates him, and he crams the soundtrack of Last Night in Soho with terrific mid-’60s music: the Walker Brothers’ version of “Land of 1000 Dances;” Barry Ryan’s “Eloise” (it’s this movie’s “DeboraB.A.B.Y.” from Baby Driver); the title song by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich; the original “I Got My Mind Set On You” by James Ray. Some songs become elaborate, dazzling set pieces, like an early scene where Eloise enters a ’60s London club and Cilla Black is singing the stirring Euro-ballad “You’re My World,” which begins with strings that evoke Bernard Herrmann’s ominous, percussive violins in Psycho. Eloise encounters an aspiring singer named Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), and is fascinated. Of course she is: Sandy is everything Eloise imagined a mod goddess would be, stylish, mysterious. Sandy has Dusty Springfield hair, a vibrant minidress. She could be on the cover of Rave magazine, draped against Steve Marriott or Scott Walker; she could be a Face, like Julie Driscoll, Sandie Shaw, Patti Boyd.
VIDEO: Anya Taylor-Joy’s Sandy performs “Downtown”
For her singing audition, Sandy chooses the Tony Hatch song “Downtown,” a hit for Petula Clark in ’64–’65. Sandy slows it down, makes it more of an invitation. When Petula sang it, she sounded like an upbeat concierge: there are movies! And fun all-night places! Neon signs! “Maybe I’ll see you there,” she suggests, but really, she was saying, go, have a good time, listen to the music of the gentle bossa nova, meet someone nice. Clark wasn’t a sexy singer; there was something prim and older-sisterly about her (she’d been around a while, and didn’t have the mod dewiness of Marianne Faithfull, Dusty, or Sandie), and she had a little steel in her voice. But she made “Downtown” a very appealing idea. You listen to that record (and its sort-of sequel “I Know a Place”), and you know why Wright made the song a focal point of his movie (two Anya Taylor-Joy versions, one slow, one peppier, have been released as an online “single” from the soundtrack). Petula isn’t promising anything, mind you, aside from an escape. Taylor-Joy implies something a bit darker. Not as dark as where Wright goes (no spoilers), but dark enough to make the proposition a bit unsettling.
Another song Eloise listens to is a track from The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society that is more cautionary about the world she enters. Ray Davies, whose usual point of view is at least somewhat contrarian, issues a warning to someone who’s “taken in by the lights,” telling her (or him, I suppose), that “the world’s not so tame.” Party-going, dancing, wine and champagne, these are the things that “Downtown” implicitly advertises, but Davies will have none of that. These things are “gonna drive you insane.” And that’s what Last Night in Soho is about: how far into nostalgic fantasy do you want to go? Are you prepared to see what goes on in the back rooms of those ritzy nightclubs? The more Eloise sees in her nocturnal visits to ’60s London, the less starry-eyed she becomes.
“The music was better,” says one character in the film who was there in the ’60s, and one might argue that the clothes, and the movies (movies with Rita Tushingham or Terrence Stamp, for example, both of whom show up in Wright’s film, along with Diana Rigg, as iconic touchstones) were as well. And, like Eloise, we get swept up, because of Wright’s stylish mastery, the central performances of McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, and that soundtrack.
Taylor-Joy is center stage as the Walker Brothers sing “You got to know how to pony!” and the whole theater (see it in a theater, please!) levitates; it’s loud, and the camera swirls with her, and it’s a moment of pop delirium. There’s a price to pay, as Ray Davies warns, but that will come later.