Member’s review: Sound it Out

Minicine member Steve Firth has written up his impressions on Sound it Out, the film we screened last week. If you saw the film here, or if you have seen it anywhere else and care to comment, agree, disagree, enlighten or any other way of communicating, then please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments box at the bottom of the post. The all important audience reactions will go live on the site tomorrow for you to see how the films were received.

Don’t forget our next film is The Hedgehog on Thursday 28th of June. Details can be found here and tickets are open to members NOW. They will open to the general public on Friday.

Northern Soul: A review of Sound it Out by Steve Firth

Jeanie Finlay’s documentary Sound It Out goes beyond chronicling the times of Teesside’s last independent record shop. The film is a piece of social realism about life in Northern England, 2011’s contribution to a back catalogue that includes Billy Lair, The Full Monty, Billy Eliot, and This Sporting Life.

Sound It Out is different though, the people are real. They live in Stockton, a town with mass unemployment, high crime and little else of note. It’s a difficult place to survive in, an even harder place to get out of. Some have found a temporary haven: music and the Sound It Out record shop.

Sound It Out is a cross between a community centre, a bring-and-buy shop and a psychiatric clinic. You go there not only to buy records, but also to meet your social and spiritual needs. The owner, Tom, has probably known you for years. You’ve most likely bought all your records from him. He might even occasionally send you a text message letting you know he has something that may interest you. He knows your musical tastes better than you do. Sound It Out is sanctuary in a cultural wasteland.

Tom claims 99% of people who frequent the shop are male, suggesting the obsessive nature of record collecting and the need for escapism are masculine traits. Well, what his customers lack in gender diversity they more than make up for in age range and musical taste. From youthful metalheads with a detailed knowledge of obscure genres to grandfathers with a penchant for 80s soft rock, Sound It Out welcome all kinds.

Stocked full of vinyl the shop is an anachronism. That the store thrives in an age of homogeneous commercialism is a significant achievement. David, Tom’s assistant, is especially aware of how callous the business world can be. Sacked, along with all other Zavvi employees, by money-orientated big business he’s revelling in his new environment, showing how a love of music, heart, and dedication to customers has made Sound It Out independent, separate and unique.

At first you laugh at Sound It Out’s strange clientele. Yes, at them, not with them. They are misfits, sad in modern meaning of the word, a jumble of life’s unfortunates, their only means of expression their all-consuming infatuation with music. The critical decisions in their lives appear to be, ‘What filing system do I use to make my records easy to find?’ and ‘Where can I put my ever-growing collection?’

One of the strengths of Finlay’s film is how it allows the viewer to jump to certain conclusions a character, and then slowly reveals their human side, showing the real person. Audience misconceptions are gracefully corrected.

The best example of this is Shane, the undisputed star of Sound It Out, a man who on the face of it appears to be the stereotypical, not very bright, middle-aged rocker. He’s seen Status Quo, according to his own estimate, “350-400 times”, says he prepares for a Quo gig by listening continuously for a week to the band’s music, and claims “there’s nothing like six nights in a row of Quo” before adding “it takes a fortnight to recover, though.” When he announces he wants to be buried in a coffin made of his records’ melted vinyl you think it’s hilarious.

You don’t think it’s hilarious when he describes his life and how difficult it’s been. Or when he talks about his years at a ‘special’ school, or when refers to himself as a ‘spacka’, or when he tells you about his job as a shelf-stacker on the permanent night shift. He’s now sad in the traditional sense of the word, you feel sorry for him, you think no one should have a life like his. You’re happy he’s found something to cling on to, something that gives his life meaning, something to take him away, however briefly, from a world of prejudice. It’s irrelevant Status Quo have rescued him, that he has a release is what’s important.


Shane is a hero.

And there are numerous other passionate, honest, likeable people in Sound It Out. The auditor with his strict indexing system (alphabetical, then chronological), the twenty-somethings DJing in a shed, and the rappers specialising in the geographically-challenged and little-known genre of Mákina, all add to the film’s warmth and humanity. While society has shamefully failed to give them any hope, they’ve got on with the lives and found a positive outlet to express themselves. Sound It Out is their triumph.

Although the film has some unquestionably funny sections, it would take a hard heart to watch Sound It Out and not be moved. People’s daily struggles are ever-present throughout the film. Whether it’s customers trying to sell their record collection for a few quid, people who can’t afford to buy an album having it “bagged” for future collection, or the seeming inevitability of each generation disappearing into the unholy triangle of unemployment, alcoholism and criminality, Finlay shows it all. We should be grateful to her.

The director allows the film to speak for itself. The cinematography captures the town’s bleakness without being overwhelming, and the characters tell us all we need to know about their lives. The simple camera work gives a feeling of freshness, and whether capturing a live band attempting to be ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ in the far-too-small shop, customers talking to Finlay on camera, or people speaking in their front rooms, there’s a warmth and intimacy to the film-making. Such is the success of this approach that the film’s soundtrack is less conspicuous than you’d expect, supporting the characters and the visual experience rather than dominating proceedings.

With its often amusing cast Sound It Out begins as a comedy, and gradually turns into a tragedy. It shows people in the North of England who, for reasons beyond their control, have to endure dead-end lives with music their sole pleasure. Stockton may be, as one teenager put it, “Where I feel safe” but it’s also claustrophobic, desperate and decaying. Sound It Out is more Kes than High Fidelity and shows us the cost of prioritising uniformity over independence, the price of placing commercialism before caring, and the idiocy of loving profit not people.

If you’re a music fan, believe there’s more to life than putting money in the coffers of multi-national companies, or have an independent streak and like to see David put one over Goliath Sound It Out is recommended. If you care about people it’s essential viewing.

– Steve Firth


2 thoughts on “Member’s review: Sound it Out

  1. Nice write-up Steve. There are many points I agree with you on, but there are a few where I have a slightly different reading. I have heard many refer to the grimness of these characters’ existence, but I didn’t feel at all that this was the case. I think any grimness is something that is socieatally built outside of the text, rather than told through the language of the film itself.

    All of the characters seem perfectly contented – or at least as contented as people ever are. I think they have their quirks because they are real people – which you rightly point out – but I don’t think there is anything to say that life is grim.

    One of things that made me so warm to the film was its narrative of ‘home’, especially in the context of a ‘perceived’ shit hole. This was most prominent in the discussion with the two metalheads, with one conceding that it’ll always be home to him, whereas his friend is adamant that it’s a shit hole. This seems a very significant societal difference and the most poignant part of the film for me.

    They were all earnest unmelodramatic characters in either direction. Neither miserable, nor having dramatic character changes/epiphanies throughout the film.

    I believe the film can be read either way and it has been very interesting to see what people think of its supposed ‘grimmness’, I would be very intrigued to hear what others think on this matter.

  2. I think, unfortunately, we are living in desperate times, a factor that can easily be interpreted as ‘grimness.’ Add to that a Northern setting and it’s difficult not to read the character’s situations in such a way…

    I would agree with Mike on this one. I think actually the film is too diverse in it’s emotional register and ultimately so well balanced that it is hard to pin it down with any all encompassing term. If I had to take a shot? Melancholy or bittersweet would probably be the closest I could come up with.

    I was very happy to see the inclusion of the UK Hardcore (or, to use the film’s term that I was unfamiliar with, ‘Makina’) fans, and even more so the fact that – after an initial few laughs – they were treated with the proper respect. It is a genre much maligned in both mainstream and underground discourse and as such sits between the two in musical purgatory (albeit a particularly lively purgatory).

    My vinyl collection and DJing proper started with UK Hardcore in the Bradford area and so I couldn’t help making comparisons between my experiences and those depicted on the screen. To bring it back to Mike’s question, perhaps this sense of ‘grimness’ paradoxically stems from a similar source: an association with other Northern towns that in the popular consciousness are seen as being ‘Grim’.

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