This year’s New York Film Festival (NYFF) has gone virtual and it’s kicking off with Lovers Rock, a new movie by Steve McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave, Widows). Lovers Rock is part of his upcoming anthology series Small Axe, which will be available later this year via BBC One and Amazon Prime. Three of the five feature-length films made for Small Axe will premiere at NYFF, and since each work stands alone, we’re reviewing them individually. Look for our reviews of Mangrove and Red, White, and Blue as they debut at NYFF58.
Small Axe chronicles life in London’s West Indian community from the 1960s through the mid-1980s. Four of the five films are based on true stories. Lovers Rock breaks that pattern, following fictional young Londoners at a house party. While not based on actual events, it feels autobiographical. Lovers Rock is even shot like a documentary, which is a big formal swerve given McQueen’s meticulous—sometimes even clinical—control over composition and camera movement.
Though it’s billed as the second installment in Small Axe, Lovers Rocks feels like the right movie to open NYFF 2020. In a year of isolation and unrest, Lovers Rock is a celebration of black lives, human contact, possibility, and solidarity.
Lovers Rock – Small Axe
Director: Steve McQueen
Release Date: November 22, 2020 (BBC One/iPlayer); November 27, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)
There’s an aching familiarity about the events of Lovers Rock, which mostly takes place over the course of one night in 1980. Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) sneaks out of her house by climbing down a drainpipe. She meets a young man named Franklyn (Michael Ward) and joyous chemistry ensues.
Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s drifting, intimate camera makes Lovers Rock feel like the crew threw a party and shot it. We glide down a hallway where a couple of people have queued for goat curry and beer and then slip outdoors for a quick smoke. Sometimes, the camera feels like a wallflower watching one of the DJs spinning reggae singles. Other times, the camera is positioned as if it’s there on the dance floor waiting to catch someone’s eye. At points, the camera even feels like a third wheel. Occasionally we’ll get an insert shot to drive home the moment, such as a suggestively damp wall, dripping wet from the crowded grind of the dance floor.
Jacqueline Durran’s costume design adds to the non-fiction illusion. It’s a late 70s/early 80s couture that evokes the era while avoiding kitsch. There’s a fine balance struck in the fashion on display. Nameless background players who don’t have lines still feel like fully realized characters thanks to their eye-catching outfits. Lovers Rock is brimming with life in every frame.
The attention to texture, flavor, and detail speaks to the lived-in quality of Lovers Rock. McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland drew on family memories from the local house party scene. Blue parties (as they’re called in the UK) were thrown by necessity as black men and women were not welcome at white nightclubs. House parties gave the West Indian community a chance to dance, to flirt, to feel human. Lovers Rock is quick to offer a reminder of the pervasive racism waiting just down the block away from the confines of the house. That reality makes the freedom and pleasure of the dance floor that much more welcome.
I can’t wait for someone to compile a full list of songs that appear in Lovers Rock. The extended dance sequences aren’t simply a showcase for Coral Messam’s choreography: they’re the narrative heart of Lovers Rock. Two needle drops, in particular, stand out given the way they capture the shifting moods of a party at different stages of the night: “Silly Games” by Janet Kay and “Kunta Kinte” by The Revolutionaries.
“Silly Games” appears early in the film as the party’s getting set up, and it returns as a sensual crescendo as black bodies and black voices entwine. “Kunta Kinte” provides a space to vent frustration and voice desire for liberation, the emotional abandon tempered by a sense of shared struggle. We’re shown in ways big and small how people at the party look out for one another, part of the film’s overriding expression of solidarity even in spite of unavoidable (and perhaps irresolvable) interpersonal conflicts. Notice how this tiny room gives everyone enough space to breathe and to be.
There’s another song Lovers Rock somehow uses perfectly, but I won’t spoil it. I’ll just say it’s the only use of the song on film that hasn’t sucked.
I wonder if the loose feel of Lovers Rock is indicative of the rest of the Small Axe films, or if this is an outlier in the anthology in terms of tone and approach. What may unify all these films beyond their geographical focus is the emphasis on black lives, black ingenuity, and black perseverance. The anthology, as a whole, takes its name from a Jamaican proverb: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” The Wailers wrote a song that popularized the saying. In the chorus, Bob Marley adds with joyous defiance, “Sharpened to cut you down.”
However Lovers Rock complements the rest of Small Axe, it may wind up being the most effortlessly enjoyable work of the anthology. McQueen’s created his most accessible film without abandoning thoughtfulness or craft. This is also McQueen’s shortest film at just 68 minutes, but like any good song, Lovers Rock belongs on repeat.