Lovers Rock | Review
Joyful Noise: McQueen Makes the People Come Together in First “Small Axe” Segment
Director Steve McQueen surprises with Lovers Rock, the second leg of his latest project, “Small Axe: A Collection of Five Films,” an anthology of stories spanning the Black British experience circa the 1960s to the 1980s. This first segment, which edges barely past an hour, is set towards the end of this planned spectrum, most of which unspools across the course of an evening at a London house party as backdrop for multiple characters mostly from a West Indian background. Romance, sexual assault, and the specter of racial violence cascade between the grooves of a soundtrack and a scenario which recalls the potency of Gaspar Noe’s Climax as far as the fly-on-the-wall mise-en-scene in a film which feels like a celebratory slice of cultural experience often relegated to the sidelines of cinema, or gridlocked in more dramatic dynamics. This is the party and we are the guests, and it’s an unexpectedly hypnotic prologue for McQueen’s later segments.
Co-written by Courttia Newland, a pulsing house party serves as the introduction between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward). Attending with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), the attraction between Martha and Franklyn forces the friends apart at the event. Meanwhile, birthday girl Cynthia (Ellis George) is irritated at Franklyn’s advances on Martha, driving her into the arms of the aggressive Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby). Outside the party, an unwelcome guest related to Martha storms in at an inopportune moment, while the gathering itself feels like a passing shelter in a darkening storm.
Lovers Rock, which refers to a type of reggae, is at its most spellbinding in the mix of dancing bodies. DP Shabier Kirchner (who shot Annie Silverstein’s Bull, 2019) transfixes in an amber glow on increasingly sweaty brows, and inside the main dance room it feels like the film and its characters are riding a wave paused on the dwindling rays of a setting sun. The men have roving eyes, and some of them, like Daniel Francis-Swaby’s smooth-talking, dudded up tailor, tries to take women by force if he can get them alone. Some are better able to varnish their intentions with sweetness, which is how Micheal Ward (recently of Blue Story, 2020) manages to spin sparks with Martha (charming newcomer Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, who is the focal point of the gossamer narrative).
An unexpectedly arresting use of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” turns into an intoxicating a cappella version by the revelers when the song ends, the promise fulfilled from earlier snippets of women cooking in the kitchen as the party was just starting to gear up. Between its carefully selected soundtrack is Mica Levi (Under the Skin; Jackie; Monos) supplying a subtle score, and the warm ambience will make one want to step right into one of the beats of the liberating party. If anything, Lovers Rocks leaves one begging for more since it feels like the briefest introduction to characters the promise of whose stories flicker briefly across the screen in one titillating night, a shimmery aperitif of what’s to come.
A far cry from the anguish which defined earlier works Hunger (2008), Shame (2011) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), and without the cerebral genre flair if Widows (2018), McQueen has embarked on an exciting new plan with this period slice-of-life.
Reviewed virtually on September 17th at the 2020 New York Film Festival. Opening Night, Main Slate – 68 Mins