A review by Shaun Munro for Flickering Myth.
Lovers Rock, 2020.
Co-written and directed by Steve McQueen.
Starring Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, Michael Ward, Shaniqua Okwok, and Kedar Williams-Stirling.
A single evening at a house party in 1980s West London sets the scene, developing intertwined relationships against a background of violence, romance, and music.
The second entry into Steve McQueen’s five-part “Small Axe” anthology series, capturing stories of London’s black West West Indian community, couldn’t be much more different from the brilliantly incendiary opening instalment, Mangrove.
Though presented in an undeniably suspenseful context, Lovers Rock is easily the most optimistic work of McQueen’s career, and audiences expecting this docu-drama of revelry to spill over into black suffering will find almost anything but. Hell, you might even call it genuinely romantic.
The film (TV episode?) unfolds over the course of a single evening, depicting an especially raucous party in London sometime in the 1980s. The first thing we see is young Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) sneaking out of her home, window-first, for fear of disturbing her aggressively Christian mother. She meets her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) as they head to a party presented by charismatic DJ Samson (Kadeem Ramsay), which begins modestly – as most all parties do – before ebbing and flowing into euphoric, organised chaos.
Named after a style of romantic reggae, Lovers Rock is far more experiential than it is plot-focused, a mood piece that doesn’t necessarily offer the most nuanced characters over its 68-minute runtime, concerned instead with recreating the vibe of a buzzing party, which it does with impressive aplomb.
From the early glimpses of Samson prepping the carpet and setting up his sound system, to food being cooked in the kitchen, there’s a clear richness of feeling in how McQueen constructs this snapshot of a moment in time.
When the party proper starts, all the expected sights are there; the hook-ups, the missed and made connections – in the age before mobile phones, remember – and the plentiful intoxication. Who among us can’t know the rowdy joy of the crowd when a banger tune hits? McQueen knows the wave on which any party naturally rides, and lastly, captures the contentment of that bleary-eyed amble back home.
It is an episode steeped in happy vibes, though also sure to acknowledge the wider milieu; when Martha briefly heads outside, she’s eyed up by a number of cat-calling white men, while later a police car ominously cruises past. But as we wait for the shoe to drop, it never happens. Yes, there are certainly unpleasant moments – especially the over-amorous pursuits of one partygoer, Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby) – but the general mood is one of joy.
Though the cast is largely comprised of unknown and on-the-rise actors – all of whom are terrifically naturalistic – much of the film owes its success to McQueen’s peerless formal control, his preference for long shots heightening our immersion in the night’s festivities.
If McQueen’s prior work is often noted for its intentionally detached observationalism, here the camera rarely sits still, getting into the weeds with the attendees, training a restless focus on hands touching other hands, waists, and bottoms – not to forget those gyrating hips. It all adds up to an atmosphere where you’ll practically be able to smell the weed smoke pluming out of your TV.
McQueen is aided by not only first-rate sound design, but also some killer musical licks, such as “Kung Fu Fighting,” Janet Kay’s show-stoppingly romantic “Silly Games” – which even includes an a acapella encore from the partygoers – and the glorious, bass-thumping climax that is The Revolutionaires’ “Kunta Kinte Dub.”
An unexpectedly upbeat “hangout film” from Steve McQueen, Lovers Rock recreates the sort of social situation we’re presently prohibited from partaking in through a distinctly black lens, both in terms of its music and the travails of its central characters. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays in the context of its wider anthology, but on its own merits delivers a soulful digestif to McQueen’s darker, more righteous Mangrove.
A soaring tribute to the soul-stirring power of music, capturing the vibe of a party with a fascinating level of authenticity. It’s enough to make you pine agonisingly for the next time you can share a room with 30 people – half-friends, half-strangers – and drunkenly scream your lungs out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★