Random Opinions — Last Night in Soho (2021)
Amazing sounds and images in a shallow mystery plot
Every teenager from the 1980s/90s certainly made or listened to mixtapes — those compilations of music from different albums/artists/styles recorded on cassette or CD-R to liven up parties. Mixtapes rarely stood out from the commonplace, but sometimes you found some really special selections that were pure fun while they lasted. At least until the next party and the next mixtape.
To me, most Edgar Wright films are just that: very well selected and exceptionally recorded mixtapes. Not only are there great songs on them, but they usually play at the right times. And they fulfill their role of entertaining for two hours, disappearing from the mind a week later. Or until the next party and the next mixtape.
I remember really enjoying his previous feature, “Baby Driver” (2017), but today I can’t mention a single scene from it! Same thing with “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” (2010): I remember having a lot of fun with all the homages to 8-bit games, I remember Mary Elizabeth Winstead looking amazing in it, but I can’t remember a single entire scene from the damn movie!
His first films, “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) and “Hot Fuzz” (2007), are satires of other movies and/or movie clichés, and probably work better because of that. Looking back, however, Wright’s filmography often boils down to dazzling music and images in the service of virtually non-existent scripts.
His new film, “Last Night in Soho”, is another great mixtape. I had a lot of fun watching it, for sure. But as the end credits start to pop you conclude that there’s nothing particularly memorable or new there — and that, once again, you’ve been seduced by super-high-quality images and sounds.
Written by Wright himself plus Krysty Wilson-Cairns, “Last Night in Soho” is a pastiche of Giallo, those hyper-stylized Italian-produced 1970s mystery thrillers, set part in the present, part during the so-called Swinging London. And with a breathtaking art direction, by the way.
There’s nothing particularly memorable or new there and, once again, you’ve been seduced by super-high-quality images and sounds.
The story starts with a Fashion student (Thomasin McKenzie) in love with 1960s London — a time that, by the way, not even screenwriter-director Wright lived. This is the first interesting element of the movie: the feeling of nostalgia for an era that hasn’t been lived, very much in vogue nowadays, and which also extends, of course, to most of the viewers.
McKenzie moves from rural England to London and finds a small room in an old building. There, every night, she relives her favorite period in human history through “dreams”. In these vivid, colorful dreams, she sees the Swinging London through the eyes of one of its creatures (played by the ubiquitous Anya Taylor-Joy), enjoys parties, dances to the music she loves, and even feels like she’s personally flirting with all those handsome men in suits and with a cigarette permanently in their mouth.
But the protagonist soon begins to realize that her dreams are actually memories from the past picked up by her subconscious (in a quick dialogue, someone mentions that the girl is some kind of medium). And soon the girl’s dream turns into a bloody nightmare when she “witnesses” a murder that happened 60 years ago.
“Last Night in Soho” is one of those stories with two very different halves. While the first part has the mood of a musical romance hitting hard on nostalgia, the second part turns into a mystery thriller on the verge of ridicule.
It’s this second half that flirts directly with the Italian Giallo, sometimes remembering the classics directed by Dario Argento — who also used absurd murder mysteries as an excuse to film a catharsis of sounds and images.
(By the way, since we’ve mentioned Argento, the big plot twist of “Last Night in Soho,” which involves the angle at which a certain scene is observed, seems to have come straight from the Italian director’s first thriller, 1970’s “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”.)
I must confess that I found the first half of Wright’s movie much more interesting. It’s very reminiscent of Jeannot Szwarc’s classic “Somewhere in Time” (1980), in which Christopher Reeve (you know, Superman without a black suit) went back in time using hypnosis to live out a love story with Jane Seymour decades before he was even born! Well, like Reeve in that film, “Last Night in Soho” shows McKenzie enjoying himself in another time and place using Taylor-Joy’s body, in scenes whose energy is contagious.
Probably the most beautiful moment, and the one that everyone will remember for the rest of their lives, is a scene where the character played by Matt Smith dances with McKenzie and Taylor-Joy at the same time (as if the two protagonists were “shifting bodies” amidst the dance steps). Most of this scene was shot on camera, without CGI, which makes the whole choreography even more impressive.
Also in favor of Wright’s film, the soundtrack is phenomenal and full of hits from that period. However, the soundtrack escapes those clichés that everyone expects. For example: rescuing the 1968 single “Last Night in Soho” by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch, and using it as the name of the movie, was a master move. The soundtrack also has Dusty Springfield, The Kinks, The Who, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and many others. Petula Clark’s “Downtown” gets an unforgettable sweet version in the voice of Anya Taylor-Joy. Anyway, if it’s not the best movie of 2021, “Last Night in Soho” is certainly the best mixtape of the year!
Unfortunately, the film loses its energy and originality when it becomes the same horror story that everyone has seen a thousand times. Full with CGI ghosts that don’t scare anyone and the usual investigation routine — looking for old newspapers in libraries, check; expecting too much from unhelpful police officers, check; blame the wrong person, check.
All in all, “Last Night in Soho” is more impressive as a sensory experience than as an original story. The film manages to throw the viewer into the rhythms, visuals, and colors of 1960s London. Even those who didn’t live that time (almost all of us) must have shivers of nostalgia when seeing, for example, the fully lit cinema marquee announcing the premiere of James Bond’s new adventure (at the time) “Thunderball”. Or the small appearances by veterans like Terence Stamp (sadly misused) and Diana Rigg, who was one of the Avengers of the 1960s (no, not Marvel’s Avengers).
So it’s a shame that this sensational audiovisual spectacle is at the service of a bad and silly plot, which will be forgotten very quickly while we continue humming the songs and remembering some of the film’s most striking images.
There is no doubt that Edgar Wright is a talented filmmaker and that he knows exactly what he is doing. But it’s time to show something more than a great, colorful mixtape.
Right now everybody knows that Wright is an amazing DJ, so maybe it’s time to look for better scripts.
“Last Night in Soho” is more impressive as a ‘sensory experience’ than as an original story. Even those who didn’t live that time (almost all of us) must have shivers of nostalgia and emotion.