Lovers Rock is the second in the sequence of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films for the BBC, stories from the frontline of the West Indian immigrant experience in the UK. Unlike its predecessor, Mangrove, which featured Letitia Wright, and Red, White and Blue, its successor, which starred John Boyega, Lovers Rock is not speckled with big names and would be bent out of shape if it were.
It’s a “day in the life” kind of affair, bookended by Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) climbing out of her bedroom window on a Saturday evening and eventually winding up back in her bed just in time for her mother to bang on her door to tell her to get up for church. In between these events McQueen delivers an evocative swirl of events, almost-vignettes, impressions, a cultural collage.
It’s 1979, probably – Janet Kay’s song Silly Games is the tune of the day – and we’re in a house somewhere in West London. It’s still daytime and the women are cooking in the kitchen while the men are rolling up carpet and hauling sofas out into the garden, twisting wires together to get the sound system up and running for a party.
Later, the party starts. Reggae tunes mostly, a bit of Chic and the odd novelty song like Kung Fu Fighting. Birthday girl is Cynthia (Ellis George) but McQueen’s focus is more on Martha – travelling by bus with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) to the party, meeting handsome stranger Franklyn (Micheal Ward), chatting, dancing, kissing, leaving together, the beginnings of what might be a glorious romance.
There isn’t much chat, which is handy because some of the Jamaican accents are a challenge if you’re not used to them, but McQueen is more interested in mood than event or dialogue. The party in Lovers Rock is emblematic, of a time when the music of Junior English, Janet Kay, Gregory Isaacs etc was riding high and a generation of British-born sons and daughters of West Indian parents were coming of age.
The men are either courtly like Franklyn or pushy to the point of rapey like Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby) but mostly they’re just faces at the party. Same with the women. Polar opposites Cynthia has a bit of a gob on her, while Martha’s friend Patty, smarting at being called “Beef Patty”, is a bit of a wallflower. But mostly the women, too, are faces in a darkened room.
The triumph of Lovers Rock is its evocation of the party, in particular when the song Silly Games plays and the camera starts winding and gliding through the room, from one person the next. Franklyn and Martha dance, groin on groin, the DJ toasts over the top of the song, condensation drips down the walls, the room sways. It’s hugely atmospheric, a synthesis of moody lighting, clever choreography, an agile camera, sensitive editing and careful direction. That’s Dennis Bovell, who wrote the song, the older guy in the hat in the middle of the room, and he seems to be partly directing the action when the music fades and the room just keeps singing the song a cappella.
Again the polar opposite – the romantic “girls song” Silly Games is followed by the altogether more warlike Kunta Kinte by The Revolutionaries, a chance for the guys to go large. Twice. When the song ends, to shouts of “rewind”, it goes straight back on again.
Films tend to be about individuals, and in Martha, Franklyn, Cynthia, Bammy, Patty etc, we have our individuals, but McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland are after something much more communal than that, and they achieve it. Even if this isn’t your corner of the cultural landscape you’ll recognise that joyous feeling when a party just starts to hum, dancing becomes a shared experience and the disconnected become the one.
Small Axe, the box set, including Lovers Rock – Watch or buy at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021