Release Date – 22nd November 2020, Run-time – 1 hour 8 minutes, Director – Steve McQueen
At a house party in 1980’s London relationships are formed, developed and tested as the music plays and people take to the floor to dance together over the course of one night.
There’s a point in Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock – the second in his Small Axe series of films – where everything simply stops. You’re entranced in the various bright hues that fill the room, but more so by every single figure in that space swaying from side to side as they join together to sing Janet Kay’s Silly Games. It lifts you up into a space free from not only gravity but stresses, cares and worries. This type of communal rejoice is often only saved for moments of darkness and threat, as characters prepare to meet an early fate. And yet Steve McQueen’s direction, as he gently allows the camera to effortlessly float through the crowd, captures something far from this. Simply people coming together to have a good time, transported by the music that connects them. This magical moment of pure energy and joy is certain to stay with you long after the credits close.
The reason for this scene being the setting of a house part in 1980’s London. Many have gathered to escape after a long day and simply have a good time, to loose themselves in the reggae that pumps from the large speakers in the front room. For most of the run time we follow Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) as she weaves her way through the various rooms, layers and people in the house. Bumping into past relationships and developing new ones along the way. While there are confrontations and moments of mild tension – harassment from a group of white men outside the house creates a particular strand of brief worry and fear as Martha finds herself alone in the street – there’s always the trustworthy escape of the song and dance of the party, alongside her spark with fellow British-Jamaican Franklyn (Micheal Ward).
Much like Brian Welsh’s sensational Beats it’s easy to find yourself engaged within the music and dance. As you witness the characters simply let go and become themselves to the sound of each song – as the tunes gradually fade away to reveal the person inside each lover and dancer present. It’s an infectiously good time as the figures allow for a celebration of identity and personality. As was the case with the gloriously uplifting street party scenes in McQueen’s first entry into his Small Axe quintet, Mangrove. Yet, Lovers Rock is almost entirely this form of relief. We see the characters interact and have their individual conversations, enough to be allowed to know enough about them to have a connection and understand their connections and relationships, but not too much to form a heavy plot that needs to be precisely followed. This is a party. People turning up to have a good time, there may be one or two spills along the way, but the opportunity to let loose is still very much in play throughout.
Relationships grow, you notice and feel that. It might be one night of heady romance, but there’s the hope and feeling that there could be something more between Martha and Franklyn, the fact it could go either way and we only see the events of the night help to capture the feeling of the piece. And like the night that it takes part over McQueen’s film very much feels like a one off, something unique and different – especially during the aforementioned Silly Games scene – that’s not quite been seen before. In a number of ways it is bold and original, assisted by McQueen’s boundlessly brilliant direction, having also penned the screenplay with Courttia Newland. Yet, the most effective thing about the whole piece, over the course of its short 68 minute run-time, is how easy it is just to sink into it. After quickly establishing its themes and what it wants to do Lovers Rock simply does what the title suggests. It gets caught up within the music that it makes and takes you along for however long to an entirely different place. A place of calm, freedom, celebration, joy and so much more. The negativity being the brief pauses in-between songs, luckily there’s plenty left of the playlist.
This is something different and effective. And yet it simply seems to step out just to tell a simple story and have a good time doing so, and that is very much the case. McQueen, his cast and crew seem to have had a good time making this feature – the nostalgic fingerprints that cover each frame seem to suggest so. An overall deep breath of sobering fresh air amongst a light musical cocktail. Who cares about what the next day, or even morning, is going to bring? For now let’s just celebrate who we are together, the simple things can link us bring power and harmony. Lovers Rock heartily sings this as it breezes by, not forgetting to leave its imprint in your mind.
Lovers Rock is a celebration of personality and identity. Steve McQueen and co create an occasionally mesmerising world of uplifting energy that you can’t help but be caught up in. The brief elements of potential threat are handled well but this is overall an infectiously good time as the night plays out.