After drilling into more dreary and bleak subjects for five movies, Steve McQueen appears to have discovered some joy. The dark personal and social struggles at the center of those earlier projects are right there in their titles (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave, and Widows), which gives Lovers Rock an immediate juxtaposition, and it plays that way, too. It remains to be seen exactly how this slender tale of West Indian Londoners at an all-night rager fits into the larger context of Small Axe, the BBC-produced anthology of five feature-length stories about the Black West Indian struggles to which Lovers Rock belongs. These may add layers of subtext to Lovers Rock beyond its immediate resonance, positioning an intimate drama within the wider fabric of racial tensions. But this swift installment sings (and dances) its own tune, too.
Titled after the romantic subgenre of reggae music, Lovers Rock is set across a single night in 1980 and loaded with a soundtrack filled with the titular music. Experienced on its own terms, this smooth snapshot of boozy dance-floor seduction plays like an artist unleashing years of repressed good vibes by applying his lyrical style to pure, unbridled bliss for almost the entirety of its slim sixty-eight minute runtime. And its that runtime that speaks to the curious identity of the Small Axe series, which McQueen has packaged as a set of films despite the episodic context of their release: Two other installments are featured this year at the New York Film Festival; one of them, Mangrove runs twice as long; and Amazon will release the entire anthology in the U.S. after the festival run. Yet even if Lovers Rock hovers somewhere between episode and movie on paper, it’s undoubtedly a piece of cinematic art, working in a wonderful blend of minor-key storytelling and vibrant choreography that transforms the entire experience into some kind of free-form musical. (Think of it as the more heavenly and lush B-side to Gaspar Noé’s dance party from hell, Climax.)
While it’s the only fictional entry in the series, the lightweight plot matters less than the jubilance surrounding it. The film is built around a familiar kind of a meet-cute scneario, with Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, in her screen debut) and her pal Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) sneaking off to a house party in the Notting Hill neighborhood, where most of the action takes place. Inside, the beats are loud and constant, with cheerful D.J. Samson (Kadeem Ramsay) unleashing one soulful tune after another as the dance floor responds on cue. The cramped room becomes a remarkable centerpiece for the encounters that follow, as Martha’s abandoned by her friend, rebuffs the advances of pushy hustler Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby), and welcomes those of the more cordial and suave Franklyn (Michael Ward). McQueen from there drifts in and out of this minimalist narrative, returning again and again to the gyrations of the crowd. It’s very much one of the best dance parties ever filmed.
Throughout, McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner obsess over the ritualistic nature of the dance floor, with flowing booze and smoke surrounding the galore of flailing arms and swerving hips. The milieu is so vividly realized, that the movie can’t help but lose some of its pull whenever it drifts elsewhere. One tense outdoor encounter with some neighborhood thugs injects palpable suspense into the proceedings, but another melodramatic showdown between Martha and an abusive party guest borders on cheesiness at odds with the activities unfolding on the floor. However, newcomer Aubyn provides an anchor throughout the proceedings, as Martha undergoes a set of confrontations. Yet after her first conflict of the night, she returns to the dance floor, lost and dazed, until the rhythms and romance overtake her once more. It’s no surprise that this main set provides a robust cinematic foundation for everything that happens in Lovers Rock. The project, in a way, harkens back to McQueen’s breakthrough 1993 installation piece Bear, which showed him wrestling with another Black man in the nude. Nearly thirty years later, Lovers Rock again fixates on colliding Black bodies, unearthing deep-seated emotions and desires that can transcend the boundaries of dialogue when they’re given the chance.
In the end, Lovers Rock is a dream, very sweet and likely fleeting. It sees McQueen in a celebratory tone, embodying an immersive joy of a very specific milieu, that also taps into the universal and suddenly inaccessible joy of an endless night of music and dance, a house party for the ages. It’s a tone that’ll likely not carry over to the rest of Small Axe, but not matter that, you don’t have to know your reggae or have been born forty years ago to long for the ache of communal fun on which Lovers Rock happily sits. Engulfed in loose, joyful, dreamy vibes, Lovers Rock is a swoony, sumptuous medley of emotional rhythms.
Lovers Rock premiered as the opening night selection at the 2020 New York Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it, along with the rest of the Small Axe entries, this fall.