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






Small Axe: Mangrove

The Mangrove Nine in the dock

 

Small Axe: Mangrove is the first of a series of five standalone films made for the BBC by Steve McQueen. The umbrella title takes its name from the reggae song by Bob Marley (or Lee Perry, depending on who you ask) and though it was originally aimed at the big-name Jamaican music producers muscling everyone else out of the market, it translates perfectly to any underdog story.

Mangrove is that story – 1968, Notting Hill in London, before it became the Notting Hill of Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts fame, was a downmarket inner-city area full of fine houses left to rot, crammed with too many tenants, many of them from the West Indies. It was vibrant, it was multiracial, blah blah blah, but to repurpose a bit of Trump-speak, it was also a shithole.

Local resident Frank Crichlow opens a restaurant, The Mangrove, hoping to escape the whores/drugs/gambling trap of his last enterprise right round the corner (still there, though now an American-style diner – oh, gentrification), but is thwarted at every turn by overzealous racist cops, keen to raid the place, affronted that a black man should try to run anything at all in a white country and using any hook (drugs? late drinking?) to haul Frank in and ruin his business.

Increasingly frustrated by his inability to turn in any direction without being blocked, and finding “the authorities” no help at all, Frank, whose restaurant has become something of a community one-stop shop, is encouraged by friends more radical than himself – he hasn’t really got a political bone in his body – to fight back.

 

A protest on the streets of Notting Hill
The protest that leads to the court case

 

Which is how he ends up in court on a charge of riot and affray, along with the other members of “The Mangrove Nine”, all arrested after a protest against the police got too lively.

Cue part two of the film, a classic underdog courtroom drama, with several of the Nine representing themselves, most notably Frank’s much more political friends – erudite activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and British Black Panther organiser Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright).

And it is a film of two halves, which is handy, because the first half is just a bit too pat, our heroes too heroic, the police (particularly in the figure of Sam Spruell’s racist cop PC Pulley), a touch too hissworthy. Everyone, good and bad, has been dekinked. Part two atones, with more rounded characters and with more time to get to know the sinning and winning sides of Frank, Darcus and Altheia, the only three of the Nine who matter dramatically.

What great performances they are. In my mind Shaun Parkes is still the slender youth of Human Traffic, but that was made in 1997 (note to self: keep up) and here he is filled out, mature, amazingly impressive as Frank Crichlow, catching the rheumy-eyed righteousness of a man whose name really meant something in pre-gentrification Notting Hill, and slightly correcting the script’s tendency to sanctify. Malachi Kirby also nails the distinctive rhythms of Darcus Howe’s speech – once heard, never forgotten – from the 1980s onwards a regular presence on British TV whenever a combative presence was required. He was always interesting and never backed down, and nor does he in McQueen’s film. I cannot say whether Letitia Wright “gets” Altheia Jones – because Jones is new to me – but the generally impressive Wright (most known for Black Panther, ironically) makes it three out of three for powerful attention-grabbing performances.

Like all the best courtroom dramas, this one has that magical gotcha moment when the underdog, by low cunning and smarts, outwits both a lying witness and a system most suited to those who understand and are comfortable with its weird formalities such as wigs and high-flown speech – ie not West Indian immigrants. Nice to see Alex Jennings, in a role that once would have gone to Edward Fox most probably, as the crusty judge whose sympathies seem to guarantee a bad outcome for the Nine.

Black British culture as a mainstream concern in a mainstream film. In terms of social history, Small Axe: Mangrove is a landmark film, simple as.

 

 

 

Small Axe: Mangrove – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

The Brooding Intensity of Michael Fassbender

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Passion, power and emotional ferocity are all hallmarks of a
Michael Fassbender performance. But is he just a kitten in real life?


Here’s a funny thing. I’m in the audience at the New York Film Festival. On stage director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender are answering questions about the disturbing, brilliant film that’s just been shown. Shame, McQueen and Fassbender’s follow-up collaboration to the gruelling Hunger has Fassbender delivering a volcanic performance as a sex addict who’s either dialling rent-a-hooker, beating off at work or devouring porn at home. Intense, dark stuff.

Someone from the floor asks Fassbender a question about the relationship between the two damaged lead characters, a brother and sister (Fassbender and Carey Mulligan). Halfway through Fassbender’s measured, thoughtful reply, McQueen chips in with a helpful clarification. “Absolutely,”, says Fassbender. Pause. “Yes,” says Fassbender, turning to McQueen, his face darkening, his brows beetling. “Please don’t interrupt me again.”

For half a second the big room at the Lincoln Center takes a breath. And then Fassbender’s face dissolves.

The man who played the hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, the brooding Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, the lairy Connor in Fish Tank, is laughing. Laughing and doubling over, a tear springing to the corner of his eye. He’s pricked the slight pomposity of the event, just a bit, and he’s absolutely delighted.

“People think that I’m very intense,” Fassbender told CBC recently. “But I’m very silly really. I like to laugh and have fun.” There’s the word, and from his own mouth – intense. So why are we surprised that the characters Fassbender portrays and the man he claims to be are so very different? Actors are meant to fool with words and gestures, that’s their job. But there is something remarkable about Fassbender. Maybe it’s the way he can turn that intensity on and off, modulate it. Someone should tell Christian Bale.

The 33-year-old German-born, Irish-bred actor dropped out of London’s Drama Centre in 2000 – unhappy with its disregard for movies – and with what must be the luck of the half-Irish landed a part almost immediately on Band of Brothers, alongside Tom Hanks. Since then he’s turned up in more huge films than people would give him credit for – 300, Jonah Hex, Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class – winning nominations and awards for all of them.

The chronology doesn’t tell the whole story though. With Band of Brothers Fassbender really thought he’d made it. In fact he followed up the TV ten-parter (he was in seven episodes) with a lean patch, working in bars, doing night shifts loading trucks, doing the odd Holby City on TV, turning up in a pop video, the sort of acting gigs most actors are familiar with.

Luck changed for the better, by an order of magnitude, when Steve McQueen cast him as Bobby Sands in Hunger in 2008. “I was 30 years old, recession was just around the corner… and for someone to take a chance on an unknown actor, you know. To take the risk…” his voice trails off. This is another genuinely lovely thing about Fassbender – he’s clearly ferociously committed to McQueen –”Apart from a big argument on the first day of Hunger, we just [he clicks his fingers]”.

Fassbender doesn’t feel strongly about the director because McQueen saved his acting bacon, he’s convinced of the director’s genius and of the importance of their bond. “My dream from the age of 17 was to have a relationship with a director. I was looking at Scorsese/De Niro, Lumet/Pacino. That would be the ultimate, to have a collaboration like that. To be on a wavelength that powerful with somebody. That was why I was so lucky to find in Steve with Hunger.” McQueen, incidentally, returns the evaluation: “Michael is a genius really. I want to work with the best actor there is. And I think he is, basically.”

Shame is Fassbender’s Mean Streets. In a just world it would win Oscars all round – even the tiniest roles in this film burn like phosphorous – but Oscar doesn’t go a bundle on masturbation, hookers, the suggestion of incest, all that jazz. A sex-addict who was also in a wheelchair, maybe…

“He [McQueen] mentioned to me in 2008 that this was an idea and I was ‘fine, just tell me when and where’. I didn’t even need to see a script. It was that simple.”

Would Fassbender have been put off if he had seen the script? Did he know how much full-frontal business there was going to be? Did he understand how damaged, deranged, desperate the lead character was?

And how do you set about playing that sort of part anyway, a questioner from the floor asks, reminding Fassbender of the shocking weight loss he went through to play Bobby Sands. “I just went out and had lots of sex, just tried to embrace it as best I could.” He’s laughing again, so is the entire room. Then, Serious Face. “Preparation? Just reading. I spent a lot of time with the script.”

Thoughts go immediately to Daniel Day-Lewis, how he refuses to step out of character during shooting. He could take a lesson in lightening up from Fassbender, one of his biggest fans.

So, a handsome devil, a bloody good actor and a fun guy who’s prepared to get butt naked in the name of his art, it’s no surprise that Fassbender is suddenly everywhere. Coming soon, he’s the lead in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi film since Blade Runner. He plays psychiatry pioneer Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. And he’s reteaming with McQueen for Twelve Years a Slave, with Chiwetel Ejiofor and some guy called Brad Pitt.

Michael Fassbender, you are so made.



© Steve Morrissey 2012


The Film that Broke the King of Cool

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In 1969, when Steve McQueen suggested a film about the legendary 24 Hours of
Le Mans race, everyone thought it couldn’t fail. Everyone was wrong

At the end of the 1960s Steve McQueen had it all. Though it was an era of longhaired peaceniks, this shorthaired toughie had become acknowledged as the King of Cool. He was one of the highest paid actors in the world and his string of box office smashes already included three total classics – The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Bullitt.

On top of that he’d been Oscar-nominated for The Sand Pebbles and, in 1970, had just made The Reivers, a gentle period drama that proved McQueen was more than a one-dimensional action man. McQueen had the box-office Midas touch and respect from the critics. The King of Cool, in other words, was hot.

Born to a stunt pilot father and an alcoholic mother, McQueen had a troubled childhood. The tearaway youth became a delinquent teenager and McQueen eventually found himself in a correctional facility. This school of hard knocks was the making of McQueen, teaching him how to focus his maverick spirit and how to handle himself and other people.

But McQueen still had trouble in his blood and for a 1950s rebel steeped in Marlon Brando’s The Wild One, riding a motorbike was the obvious next step. McQueen learned to ride while drifting around the US after a stint in the Marines. And he took to off-roading like a natural, soon graduating to gruelling races on a beloved Triumph, just like Brando’s.

Incidentally, this “the boy just loves to run wild” story was not concocted for the publicity pages. Later, when he was so famous and valuable that the studio banned him from racing, McQueen did it anyway, entering himself in events under the name Harvey Mushman.

McQueen simply loved racing and put himself through acting school with the money he earned in competitive races. And with the beginnings of success after a stint in the TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive, he added cars to bikes – the D-Type Jaguar XKSS being the first and one of the most loved of an enviable collection of sexy fast vehicles.

As with the bikes, McQueen became passionate about car races that relied heavily on toughing it out. He became a feature at Sebring, at the 24 Hours of Daytona and, eventually, at Le Mans, whether in the crowd, behind the scenes or behind a wheel.

McQueen’s thrill-seeking persona and anti-establishment attitude made him a natural film star. Whether he was riding a horse in The Magnificent Seven, a motorbike in The Great Escape or bouncing a car down the hills of San Francisco in Bullitt, McQueen in the driving seat seemed guaranteed to make audiences whoop and studio bosses forget that he was, in fact, murder to work with.

As he rose to the top, all the while McQueen was working on a plan to make a film about “the greatest endurance race in the world”, as he called it, a film in which silly human stories would be pushed to the background and the cars would get their due as the stars of the show.

In 1965 he nearly managed something like it with his Great Escape director John Sturges. But their Formula 1 project Day of the Champion was pipped to the post by John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, starring James Garner. No one, surely, wanted two films about racing?

McQueen persisted and by 1969, at the peak of his powers and with enough clout to tell studios what to do, he set off again with Sturges to make his Le Mans film.

It was a gigantic undertaking. 26 cars, 52 drivers from seven countries, 350,000 extras and 20,000 props. And though Sturges was the director and the studio was in charge of the money, McQueen was calling the shots.

It’s at this point that we should take stock. On the upside we’ve got a star at the peak of his powers, a subject close to his heart, a director who really knows his stuff and enough pedal-to-the-metal glamour to raise the dead.

On the downside we have an actor with money worries (30 staff on the payroll and an extravagant lifestyle can do that to the best of us) and a focus so intense it was beginning to turn ugly.

McQueen had always been an awkward customer – a moody, driven actor who’d work tirelessly to upstage his fellows (look again at the tics and gestures that drove Yul Brynner wild in The Magnificent Seven) – and his normal movie-star paranoia only got worse when he discovered cocaine.

Whether it was the chip on his shoulder, the self-belief, the paranoia, the drugs or a fatal combination of the lot, McQueen’s single-mindedness morphed into madness during the making of Le Mans. Stories abound of seasoned film technicians looking on aghast as McQueen agonised endlessly over the tiniest details – the breed of bug glued to his windscreen, the dust on his tyres and so on.

Nothing got done. Worse, McQueen’s years of labouring on the idea for Le Mans had produced a mere ten pages of treatment which baffled all who read it. In his mind the film was about racing and nothing else.

Pure racing, Sturges warned him, would make for a boring movie. Sturges suggested adding human interest, a love story, anything that would flesh out the characters and involve the average filmgoer.

But what did the director of Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape know about film-making? McQueen got his way and Sturges walked, uttering the classic exit line “I’m too old and too rich to put up with this shit”.

Over the course of the next psychotic months McQueen fired virtually everyone close to him – the producer, long-time colleagues, his agent of ten years. Finally, his wife turned up on set and McQueen “fired” her too.

To replace Sturges, McQueen hired Lee Katzin, a director from TV who he presumably felt would be easy to control. The falling-out was virtually instantaneous, with Katzin arriving on the set, putting out his hand and saying “Hello, Steve. Nice to meet you”. “Mr McQueen,” replied the addled star, grabbing Katzin violently by the tie.

Back in Hollywood the alarm bells were ringing and the concerned studio decided that McQueen had had his length of rope and was quite obviously hanging himself with it.

The suits arrived en masse and took the film back from McQueen, who was forced to give up artistic control and his $750,000 paycheck so as to avoid being replaced by Robert Redford. Anything to stay in the film.

With McQueen out of the driving seat the film, finally, got finished.

The result? Well, race fans loved it, and still do, claiming it’s the most authentic race film ever made. Normal human beings, not interested in the Ferrari 512 or the Porsche 917, stayed away. The film was a flop and Sturges was proved right, as McQueen later admitted.

For McQueen it marked the end of his career as a player. He went into therapy, became a recluse and hit the booze. Though his career did later recover, his time as Hollywood’s biggest star was over.

When he died, of cancer aged only 50 in 1980 McQueen left behind a handful of great work from the 1960s, but also a huge fleet of cars, trucks and classic motor bikes, more than 200 in total.

In spite of the fact that vehicles had delivered the biggest humiliation of his career, Steve McQueen had stayed faithful to his first true love right to the end of a wild life. Now wouldn’t that be a perfect way to bookend a big Hollywood biopic?

Assuming you could find someone who could play the King of Cool…

Le Mans – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2011