If you weren’t already excited at the prospect of the great Steve McQueen directing five new films as part of an anthology series this year (Small Axe, coming to the BBC in November), the masterful Mangrove would’ve changed all that when it opened the London Film Festival recently. Now, as this year’s event draws to a sad close, audiences have been lucky enough to view another excellent installment in the series, but the experience of watching Lovers Rock couldn’t be more different.
Set in West London in the early 1980s and clocking in at a mere 68 minutes, Lovers Rock takes place over the course of one Saturday night, as dozens of young people from the local West Indian community show up for the house party of the year, filled with delicious food, booze and loud, soulful reggae music. What follows is perhaps the most authentic and unapologetic look at such a night in all of cinema, from the romantic pursuits of its guests and the alcohol-driven euphoria that erupts at the sound of a great song, right to the irresponsible use of narcotics and the drunken arguments with friends and family. Its razor-focused, ingenious in its simplicity.
Newcomer Amarah-Jae St Aubyn shines as Martha, who climbs from her bedroom window under the nose of her deeply devout mother to meet her friend Patty for a fun night out. They are hassled by various men before Martha meets Reggie (Francis Lovehall) and forms a surprise connection, in spite of her many reservations and much to the annoyance of Patty. Aside from the poor behaviour of Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby) towards the women at the party that quickly gets out of hand, and a row Martha has with her cousin, Lovers Rock is mostly a magical and positive experience, and is easily McQueen’s most upbeat film yet.
Audiences familiar with his work will watch Lovers Rock awaiting drama but, unlike Mangrove, or indeed any of his other films, it never really happens. The racial tensions in the area are clearly implied, most notably by a group of white men who hassle Martha on the street, but it never becomes the focal point of the story as one might expect. They’re there simply to remind us of why this party is happening in the first place; the guests don’t exactly feel welcome in the local clubs and have had to create their own safe space to party. But McQueen is far more interested in the fun his characters are having than the goings-on outside.
This is a film with very few characters and little story, more of an observational piece than a traditional narrative, high on atmosphere and spirit. McQueen, well-known for his signature long, motionless takes, moves the camera more than ever before, almost as an extra uninvited guest to the party and reflecting its hectic nature as the night continues. The engrossing reaction to the Janet Kay song Silly Games (making up almost ten minutes of screen-time, including almost five straight minutes of non-stop, passionate singing) is not only the finest moment of the picture, but one of the highlights of McQueen’s already illustrious career. He’s never had so much fun.
As the sun shines on Sunday morning, Reggie returns to work for his short-tempered boss and Martha makes it back just in time to attend church with her mother; a subtle reminder of the world these people must return to, having escaped from it the night before.
Lovers Rock is more concerned with mood than it is narrative, focused on capturing the magic of a moment that would normally make up only a handful of scenes. It perfectly captures the escapist magic of music, the essence of a house party and, more importantly, the comfort this one provides for its guests. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series is becoming something very special indeed. This is sublime.
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