There’s a heady, hypnotic interlude midway through Steve McQueen’s dreamy celebration of Black community and culture, Lovers Rock, when Janet Kay’s 1979 hit “Silly Games” plays out on the turntable and is taken up by the people crammed into the suburban London living room where a house party is being held. For a full five minutes they continue singing a cappella — the women in particular — their voices matched by the ecstasy of their swaying bodies. The massive speakers remain quiet and the only other sound is the shuffle of feet on wooden floorboards and an occasional exclamation of approval from the DJ.
The sole fictional story in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology for BBC and Amazon, comprising five original films set around London’s West Indian community between the late 1960s and the mid ’80s, Lovers Rock also looks on paper to be the least narrative-driven of the series. Its untethered, ethereal flow is utterly intoxicating, an immersive experience shaped by the clouds of cigarette and reefer smoke in the air, the smell of goat curry wafting from the kitchen, and above all, the sinuous rhythms of the slow-groove romantic reggae subgenre that gives the film its title.
Originally selected to premiere in the Cannes 2020 lineup before that event joined the long list of festivals canceled or modified in this year of the pandemic, Lovers Rock gets its official bow as the opening-night Main Slate entry of the New York Film Festival. Two other Small Axe films, Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, also will debut at NYFF ahead of their late fall premiere on Amazon.
Co-written by rapper, music producer and novelist Courttia Newland and McQueen from a story by the director, the film is molded around the dance-floor courtship of two magnetically drawn strangers, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward). But more than a conventional romantic encounter, it’s a time capsule revisiting the custom of Blues parties held in private homes. These were sanctuaries where Black Londoners unwelcome in white nightclubs could dress up and pay a small admission fee to dance, flirt, purchase beer and food and feel a sense of belonging that was more tenuous in the outside world.
The story is framed by self-possessed teenager Martha sneaking out of her family home in Ealing and then rendezvousing with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) to take a double-decker bus to Notting Hill for the party. It ends with her slipping back into her bedroom in the early hours of the following morning, just in time for her mother to wake her for church. Other characters sketched early on include Cynthia (Ellis George), who lives in the house where the party is taking place and is celebrating her 17th birthday; and Martha’s troubled cousin Clifton (Kedar Williams-Stirling), seen stealing coins from a phone booth to cover his admission.
The actors are natural and appealing, though McQueen is as interested in the environment that brings them together as he is in the characters themselves. He observes the guys who make up the DJ crew, led by Samson (Kadeem Ramsey), clearing the front room of a two-story semi-detached house that will become a throbbing dance hall. They remove the plastic-wrapped sofa to the back garden, roll up the rugs and install the sound system, sparking up a blunt as the work proceeds. In the kitchen, a small group of women sing as they prepare the curry and other dishes in a limited menu scribbled on the wall by the door.
The can-do spirit of the enterprise is swiftly conveyed, as are the economical hints of social context, such as Martha nervously glimpsing a street evangelist carrying a crucifix from the bus, suggesting her rebellion against her religious background. The racism that is a binding theme in the anthology is indicated in a quick shot of white kids watching in silence from across the way, and more pointedly in a brief scene involving a group of hostile neighborhood whites taunting Martha when she’s momentarily alone outside, followed close behind by the not-to-be-messed-with figure of the party bouncer.
Gifted DP Shabier Kirchner gets right in close among the dancers to feel the shifting moods of the party and the sensation of body against body. The tactile intimacy and gorgeous fluidity of the visuals is enhanced by the loose rhythms of the editing by Chris Dickens and McQueen.
The rich evocation of a time and place starts with Helen Scott’s lived-in production design and Jacqueline Durran’s fabulous costumes, their blazing colors, textures and individual styles alive in every frame. And the cultural imprint of the community is captured in their distinctive West Indian speech patterns.
Women dominate the dance floor early on as the guys loiter around the edges of the room, eyeing up prospective partners. The collective physicality of the ensemble shifts from song to song, among them Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” Barry Biggs’ reggae spin on “Hey There Lonely Girl,” and Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting,” which sparks some amusingly goofy martial arts moves. As more men start approaching the women, the camera catches the ritual of a touch to the elbow signaling an invitation to dance.
The attention to sensory depictions of bodies in motion together, exploring and adapting to each other’s rhythms or grinding up against the walls with sexual hunger creates real heat, taking the film almost into a stylistically experimental territory that nods back to McQueen’s foundations in video art. Incidents that might have been played as more aggressive story beats by a different director instead here float organically in and out of focus in a film that’s fundamentally one long sustained swoon of liberating movement.
The different expectations Martha and Patty have for the evening become apparent when they get hit on by Franklyn and his buddy Reggie (Francis Lovehall), and Patty, unimpressed, leaves abruptly. Martha is briefly unnerved to find herself alone in an environment where she knows no one. But she handles herself well, swatting off the overbearing attentions of Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby), a showboating Don Juan whom she later intervenes to stop in a near-rape situation with Cynthia. And while Clifton’s arrival creates friction, disharmony eventually melts away again on the dance floor.
What “Silly Games” is to the women, Jamaican reggae band The Revolutionaries’ 1976 classic “Kunta Kinte” is to the men. Fists are raised in power salutes, shirts come off, and the release spreads like rapture through the room full of proud men reconnecting with their cultural roots and physically shaking off any inhibitions that come with living in a society that sees them as outsiders. The smooth segue from that show of strength and resilience to the joy of Martha and Franklyn leaving the party on his bicycle makes this short, beguiling film feel like a lovingly personal work for McQueen.
Venue: New York Film Festival (Main Slate)
Production companies: BBC Film, Turbine Studios, Lammas Park, in association with Amazon Studios, Emu Films
Cast: Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Micheal Ward, Shaniqua Okwok, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Ellis George, Alexander James-Blake, Daniel Francis-Swaby, Kadeem Ramsay, Francis Lovehall
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriters: Courttia Newland, Steve McQueen; story by McQueen
Producers: Anita Overland, Michael Elliott
Executive producers: Tracey Scoffield, David Tanner, Steve McQueen
Director of photography: Shabier Kirchner
Production designer: Helen Scott
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Music: Mica Levi
Editors: Chris Dickens, Steve McQueen
Choreographer: Coral Messam
Casting: Gary Davy