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Review: In 'Small Axe: Lovers Rock' Steve McQueen Throws the Party We All Need Right Now

By Ciara Wardlow | Film | November 28, 2020 |

By Ciara Wardlow | Film | November 28, 2020 |


It’s like Steve McQueen knew somehow that we would all be desperate to go to a party. With Lovers Rock, the second installment of the filmmaker’s five-part Small Axe film anthology, it’s hard not to feel there’s an eerie prescience to what is perhaps the most daring and yet most intimate entry in this impressive collection.

The entirety of Small Axe plays like a love letter to the Black British experience, and particularly the West Indian community, but it’s in Lovers Rock that the anthology truly wears its heart on its sleeve, a 70-minute gem mostly set in a single location—a house that transforms Cinderella-like into a makeshift reggae dance club for a 1980 night.

Lovers Rock is indulgent in its detours, its meandering pace—it takes it sweet time and will not be rushed—but it’s so masterfully well done you can’t fault it for not just presenting the party in enough detail to present a compilation album’s worth of 1980 hits from DJ Samson’s (Kadeem Ramsay) setlist, but giving a good bit of time to all the set-up as well, from the preparation of food to the moving of furniture and the rigging of stereos.

For most of its runtime, the film is really just vibing, to use modern parlance, and it has the impeccable execution to do so while remaining utterly grabbing. It feels impressively akin to experiencing a real party: the utterly on point ebbs and flows, how the atmosphere of the dancefloor changes over the course of the night and between songs, from the slight awkwardness present in early arrivals before the party reaches full swing to the inevitable shift towards sloppiness that happens in the small hours of the morning.

In the case of Lovers Rock, the only installment of Little Axe not based on a specific true historical incident, it feels somewhat ill-fitting to speak of a “plot” in a traditional sense. Co-authored by McQueen and Courttia Newland, the screenplay is inspired by McQueen’s aunt, who used to sneak out to blues parties such as the one depicted in the film. It plays out more like a series of vignettes with a through-line of a budding young romance loosely binding them together than something that can be described in traditional act structure terms. Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn in a promising screen debut), a middle-class suburban teen, sneaks out her bedroom window to attend the party with friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), where she meets the flirtatiously charismatic Franklyn (Micheal Ward). Franklyn initially comes on too strong for Martha’s taste, but over the course of the night, she finds herself increasingly won over. While there are some other recurring figures to give the story some sense and coherence and sense of momentum, it’s Franklyn and especially Martha that ultimately keeps Lovers Rock on the right side of being pleasantly meandering and not aimless, and enables the story to be capped off by a satisfying conclusion.

Lovers Rock, as the name—a particularly romantic style of reggae that grew popular in London in the 1970s—somewhat suggests, is first and foremost an exploration of Black joy and community. While filmmakers have regularly told stories of Black suffering and struggle for decades with the hopes of delivering a range of pointed commentary, far less screen time has been devoted to depicting Black joy or acknowledging the quietly radical potential of spotlighting such imagery. Lovers Rock feels like a prime example of this kind of film that’s still largely missing from the equation. Although a few conflicts arise along the way, it’s basically an hour’s escape to one hell of a party with a meet-cute thrown in for good measure.

In its robust atmosphere and dedication to detail, watching Lovers Rock is like stepping into a time machine. There’s a verisimilitude to the experience, heightened by Shabier Kirchner’s flowing, at times nearly hypnotic cinematography that really takes on a starring role in this installment. It’s a truly special accomplishment, and all the more so because it so happens to be depicting an experience that has been woefully neglected in cinema to date.

There’s a pointedness to McQueen’s anthology that feels most evident in Lovers Rock of any installment; a sense of, here is a sample platter of some of the many rich human experiences that cinema to date has mostly neglected. Here is a community that deserves to be remembered, to be recognized, to be celebrated cinematically. Here, come and see. Come join the party.

Lovers Rock is now streaming on Amazon Prime.