Lovers Rock

At the party

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.

Franklyn and Martha laughing
Lovers: Franklyn and Martha

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 six-part box set, including Lovers Rock – Watch or buy at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Blue Story

Stephen Odubola and Micheal Ward

Scrappy but powerful, Blue Story is also known as the film that got briefly banned by some UK cinema chains, because some people going to see it were arriving armed to the teeth.

Blue Story, a violent gangster movie, made by the BBC,” is how one British newspaper, never happier than when playing the race card and trashing the “woke” BBC, described the film in its reporting on the violent skirmishes at Star City, Birmingham, when the film opened. What was doubly unfortunate, from the film’s perspective, is that the other film showing that day was Frozen II, so the kids lining up to see that got a lot more than they bargained for.

But the publicity payback from those headlines? Who knows. Does notoriety translate to bums on seats? Or do you alienate more people than you attract?

What’s doubly or even triply unfair is that the film does not glorify violence. In fact it is bending over backwards to point out how cowardly and indiscriminate a gun is compared to, say, physically fronting up to an adversary.

There is plenty of that, too, in the story of timid Timmy and more swaggering Marco, schoolfriends who get caught up in the postcode gang warfare of South London. Timmy’s from one bit of town and goes to school in another (just down the road, but over a crucial gang border), and it’s this fact alone that forces him to have to eventually make a dramatic choice – my “end” or my friend.

Blue Story is a film about love not violence,” said writer/director Andrew Onwubolu (as Rapman) in a statement when the violence erupted in Birmingham. True, it is love that propels the story – Timmy’s for Leah, a sweet relationship of a mutual nerdiness (both love Game of Thrones) upended by the ongoing running battles between different gangs.

The gangs of mostly black youths have no raison d’etre – they don’t seem to run drugs and their beef with each other seems to have nothing behind it beyond territory, but both sides are fiercely and vividly drawn by Onwubolu’s screenplay in scenes that verge on the incomprehensible they’re so thick with street slang – subtitles on for this old white guy.

“Furthermore,” a word regularly used by the gangs – “get the fuck out ma face furthermore” – tickled me as a go-to, but while various gang members possibly spend a bit more time attitudinising than seems strictly necessary, the demands of on-the-hoof acting on a budget being what they are, Onwubolu’s intention, received loud and clear, is to point out that a) these are just kids, really and b) they’ve admirably got their teeth stuck into something – feckless they ain’t – it’s just the wrong something.

The gang tooled up and ready for action
The aftermath…

It’s a classic three act structure. We meet the players, we learn about the beef (no spoilers), and then the consequences of that play out in a bloody and unpleasant finale also going out of its way to avoid the “glorifying” tag. In Blue Story the biggest props go to the smallest acts by its characters. So facing down a bully in a shopping mall is shown as being much more the action of the big man than shooting someone almost haphazardly from a safe distance while they run like hell hoping to dodge the bullet.

The acting is really top notch – I’m sure there’s a more street way of putting that – and the film is absolutely rammed with faces of the future. Stephen Odubola as the timid-to-terrifying Timmy, Micheal Ward as the conflicted tough guy Marco, Khali Best as the psychotically wild-eyed Killy and Karla-Simone Spence as Timmy’s sweet but street girl Leah are the most obviously deserving of praise but there is real depth here – Kadeem Ramsay, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, Junior Afolabi, Sean Sagar – I could just write the whole cast list off the imdb, they are that good.

Onwubolu (as Rapman) turns up himself at various points, Greek chorus style, offering rapped summaries of what’s just gone down, occasionally filling in a bit of missing background, and summing up, most notably in his concluding round up – “There really ain’t no winner when you’re playing with them guns”. And that, in a phrase, is what this fast and furious film is all about.

Blue Story – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021