CAST: Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Micheal Ward, Shaniqua Okwok, Francis Lovehall, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Kadeem Ramsay, Ellis George, Daniel Francis-Swaby, Marcus Fraser, Saffron Coomber, Frankie Fox, Romario Simpson, Alexander James-Blake, Jermaine Freeman
RUNNING TIME: 68 mins
BASICALLY…: A house party in 1980s West London sets the scene for romance, violence, and music…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
This review is of the cut shown at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2020 – it is currently scheduled to air on BBC One on November 22nd 2020.
The second entry in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology – due to begin airing next month on BBC One and BBC iPlayer – is a very different beast from Mangrove, the first (and recently reviewed) film in the line-up. Granted, the whole point of an anthology is that every episode/film is different than the last in at least one major way, but Lovers Rock could not be any more removed from the more politically-charged Mangrove; for one, it’s about half the length, with this film clocking in at just over an hour, while any discussion about race and politics is largely shoved to the side to pave the way for a very different kind of black experience.
That experience being the utter euphoria and gentle passion of a simple night of music and romance, which McQueen captures so elegantly and transports you right into the moment so seamlessly that you soon stop caring about the lack of a concrete plot or significant dramatic stakes, and are simply grooving along to the mellow vibes of the atmosphere.
The film takes place over one evening at a house party in London’s Ladbroke Grove during the early 1980s, where people of West Indian backgrounds pay a 50p entry fee to come and immerse themselves into the non-stop reggae blasting through the speakers. We swerve in and out of several characters’ experience, predominantly that of young Jamaican woman Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) who initially arrives with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) but soon ends up being wooed away by charming Franklyn (Micheal Ward), leading a dissatisfied Patty to make a quick exit; her loss, because the party she walks away from soon turns into an even livelier and much more passionate affair, where romance unfolds and severe dance moves are shared.
That is basically the whole movie in a nutshell; there’s not a lot of plot aside from the odd heated character exchange, and any conversations about the racial politics of the time are entirely kept away from the spotlight. If that alone makes you feel that this is not as strong a movie as Mangrove is, then that’s fair enough, but this movie isn’t even setting out to be anything like that. This is the kind of film that wants to simply put you in the middle of a scene and let you take in all of its passion and intimacy, and in that regard McQueen does something remarkable here. Almost right away, you feel as though you are in a sense of peace, gliding to and fro to the rhythms of the music and letting the beats take full control of all your senses just as much as the characters are allowing over their bodies. McQueen lets several scenes of people dancing and caressing their partners play out in real time, only stopping for the occasional cut to another part of the house or the people chilling out on the sofa in the back garden, as though to give us a brief pause from the non-stop partying before taking us right back to where things left off. The overall vibe makes you feel as elevated as the people on-screen, which McQueen does a fantastic job of replicating for an audience who will more than likely watch this from the comfort of their own living rooms, who may well be inspired to get up and groove along whilst watching.
It’d be hard to blame them, with a well-chosen soundtrack that McQueen once again masterfully incorporates into some of the most stand-out sequences of not just this movie, but perhaps of any media yet seen in 2020. One key scene involves Janet Kay’s track “Silly Games”, which at first plays over a montage of couples on the dance floor getting nice and close with each other as the slow and soothing melody plays on a loop, and then magic strikes as the music fades out, and every single person in the room continues singing along to every high note in the song, in a perfectly captured moment of bliss that to my mind I’ve not yet seen in a dance movie. It is an absolutely gorgeous scene to behold, and it almost left me in a teary trance over its simple beauty, something that McQueen should be exponentially proud of capturing so elegantly in a way that anyone can admire, regardless of any boundaries. A special shout-out, though, goes to the eventful playing of Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” which sends everyone into a child-like state of excitement when it starts playing, with their faux karate chops and kicks being an endless source of joy and bliss.
Two movies in to his anthology, and Steve McQueen is already doing a bang-up job with films that transcend beyond the airwaves; you can expect reviews for the remaining three films in the Small Axe series upon their terrestrial debut over the next month or so, because I am very curious to see how much further the Oscar-winner can go with their already glistening quality. Until then, McQueen has done something very special with Lovers Rock; he has replicated the house party experience in all of its wondrous glory, barring the odd aggressive party guest and an unfortunate case of sexual assault, as both he and the on-screen actors lend a soothing charm to a night full of love, friendship, and some pretty awesome music.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Lovers Rock sees filmmaker Steve McQueen significantly change gears for his second Small Axe instalment, which perfectly captures the bliss and euphoria of a simple house party in west London where the music and mostly sweet romance flows with powerful calmness in place of a more concrete plot, in a soothing and passionate love letter to music and all of its wondrous, universal power.