by Andrew Wyatt on Dec 1, 2020

When director Steve McQueen’s brisk, swooning feature Lovers Rocks opens, there’s already a tingle of anticipation in the air. In the kitchen of a large West London house, a gaggle of British-Jamaican women are stewing up enormous, steaming pots of curry. At one point, the ladies burst into spontaneous, a cappella rendition of a love song. A no-nonsense young woman who lives in this large, multi-family residence – later identified as birthday girl Cynthia (Ellis George) – barks orders at a couple of blokes as they move furniture around and carry in audio equipment such as speakers, turntables, and sound boards. The analog gear that the DJs set up and the vinyl 45s they enthusiastically rifle through are the first conspicuous clues that the film takes place sometime in the very early 1980s. (Call it The Last Days of London Disco.)

A giddy delight animates McQueen’s West Indian characters as they go about the preparations for what will prove to be an epic underground house party. However, the director also slyly slips in an early suggestion as to why safe spaces for Black cultural expression are so essential: As one of the dreadlocked DJs sits outside, keeping watch on the trailer full of gear, a couple of white locals give him the stink-eye. It’s a glare that says, “You don’t belong here.” No matter: Nothing is going to ruin this night, as the allure of Cynthia’s party pulls British-Jamaican Londoners from near and far in pursuit of cheap booze, righteous beats, and maybe new love. (Or, at least, a kiss that lingers.)

Lovers Rock is the second film in McQueen’s five-feature anthology Small Axe – the title derives from the 1973 Bob Marley track of the same name – which is being distributed by BBC One and Amazon Prime. In the series, Lovers Rock is preceded and followed by more sharply political, true-story narratives, Mangrove (which premiered Nov. 15) and Red, White and Blue (premiering Dec. 4). In the context of the larger anthology, it’s tempting to frame Lovers Rock as the easygoing intermezzo, a hangout film slotted between two hard-nosed works about racism in British society. However, to do so would overlook the sneaky depths of McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland’s screenplay, in which numerous asides hint at the racism, misogyny, and homophobia brewing outside (and within) the party’s ephemeral oasis of bliss. It also undersells the film’s heady potency as a freestanding, impressionistic whirlwind of music, motion, and romance. Ultimately, it’s the latter aspect that comes to define the film’s exhilarating spell. Lovers Rock is, at bottom, a Party Film, a feature that ushers the viewer into a garden of earthly delights through lavish indulgence and insouciant attention to detail.

If Lovers Rock can be said to have a protagonist – and it’s not clear that a film whose plot can be summed up as “one night, a wild party happened” really needs one – it’s probably church-going working girl Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), who slips out of her bedroom window at her mum’s house to meet up with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). Both women are wearing trench coats over their shimmery party dresses, which give their rendezvous and the subsequent crosstown bus ride to Cynthia’s place an air of cloak-and-dagger adventure. Martha appears to be Patty’s plus one, as the former woman seems to know no one else at the party. Cynthia later mutters snide comments about Martha’s presence, jabs of the “Who does she think she is?” variety. McQueen and Newland layer the film with these sort of subtle details regarding class, race, and assimilation. It can be seen in the ways that Martha, a pink-collar worker with a robust London accent, is perceived by the other British-Jamaicans in attendance, most of them more explicitly Rasta in their demeanor. It’s also discernible in the code-switching Martha herself evinces when she becomes agitated and her island patois bubbles to the surface.

Cynthia’s opinion hardly matters, however, as Martha and Patty’s goal is simply to dance, drink, and meet men. The party’s role as a pickup scene is illustrated in a moment where the glowering, mountainous bouncer, Jabba (Marcus Fraser), waives the pair through sans admission fee. The line of eager, well-dressed Rastas behind them is not so lucky – men must pay full price. Before long, Martha and Patty are cornered by a pair of swaggering cats who slather on the compliments and beg for a dance. The smoother member of this duo, Franklyn (Michael Ward), takes a shine to Martha, who is flattered but blunt about his flaws: “Ya pile on the aftershave, innit? Come like Pepé Le Pew.” Patty gets a bit miffed about being neglected and eventually ghosts Martha in retaliation, abandoning her friend to fend off the attentions of another would-be-suitor, the sartorially magnificent and alarmingly aggressive Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby). Martha’s instinctive aversion to this fellow proves unfortunately correct when he later shifts his intentions to Cynthia, in what ends up as one of the film’s uglier, triter little subplots.

This is the exception rather than the rule, however. Lovers Rock is threaded with numerous mini-narratives, many of which pan out in unexpected ways. When one of Martha’s exes, Clifton (Kedar Williams-Stirling), turns up at the door, shouting and scuffling with Jabba, the viewer is primed to expect an eventual showdown between the strong-and-steady Franklyn and the resentful, possibly unstable Clifton. Yet the latter man’s volatility ultimately finds expression on the dance floor, where his violent, solitary gyrations are knowingly redirected to more mellow, ecstatic purpose by the party’s DJs. This becomes something of a pattern: McQueen’s film often zigs when one expects it to zag, as when a distraught woman and her best friend share a tender, tentative kiss behind a closed bedroom door. (The scene outside that room being far too harshly heteronormative to tolerate such a thing.) Sometimes, McQueen creates a little burst of tension or amusement with an incidental plot detail, such as when Bammy briefly sets down his impressive hat to comb his equally impressive Afro, only for some unseen party guest to walk away with the item.

That said, it’s not plot that powers Lovers Rock, but music, color, and movement. The celebration at the center of the film is what was termed a “blues party,” an underground event for Black people who were effectively shut out of the white British nightclub scene. Despite the name, the soundtrack to the film is a vibrant, ecumenical organism, replete with R&B, soul, disco, rocksteady, reggae, and the titular lovers rock, a reggae offshoot with a softer, sentimental side. (For this reason, lovers rock was sometimes regarded as “women’s music,” although the reality was more complex and culturally fraught.) Janet Kay’s 1979 hit single “Silly Games” serves as a woozy centerpiece in McQueen’s film, which lingers adoringly on the dance floor as the partygoers sway and grind to the song’s bittersweet lyrics – and then keep those lyrics going, belting them out a cappella long after Kay’s voice fades. So enamored is cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s camera with the joyous movement of Black bodies that Lovers Rock often feels like a dance film – albeit one with the warm verisimilitude of a time-tripping documentary rather than the crisp spectacle of a traditional musical.

McQueen cannily illustrates the way that talented DJs can direct the flow of a party, even as they respond to cues from the partygoers, creating a complex feedback loop with its own creative logic. Likewise, the film is sensitive to the finer fissures that proliferate between and within subcultures. Witness how several women respond with shrieking glee to the first notes of Carl Douglas’ crowd-pleasing disco chart-topper “Kung Fu Fighting,” which elicits eye rolls from a few guests. Or how the energy on the dance floor evolves over the course of the night, shifting to a more aggressive, masculine tone that peaks with the Revolutionaries’ iconic “Kunta Kinte” dub, provoking revolutionary chants and hyper-kinetic skanking. This attunement to the sticky, enticing vitality of the blues party is what makes Lovers Rock such an enjoyable mini-marvel: It invites the viewer inside, to squeeze between the sweaty, horny, joyous Black celebrants and appreciate what made such events invaluable. Indeed, it is precisely the ephemeral nature of the party that makes it feel so magical. Eventually the sun comes up, you take the bus home, and you crawl back through the bedroom window. Eventually you clock back in at work to face the white world and all its indignities anew. The magic lingers, however, warming you like the promise of a phone call from a pretty girl.

Rating: B+

Small Axe: Lovers Rock is now available to stream from Amazon Prime.