NYFF: The first entry of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series to reach audiences is a galvanizing party movie with one helluva dance floor.
After drilling into dreary subjects for five movies, Steve McQueen appears to have discovered joy. The dark personal and social struggles at the center of those earlier projects are right there in their titles (“Hunger,” “Shame,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “Widows”), which gives “Lovers Rock” an immediate juxtaposition, and it plays that way, too.
It remains to be seen exactly how this concise tale of West Indian Londoners at an all-night rager fits into the larger context of “Small Axe,” the BBC-produced anthology five feature-length stories about the Black West Indian struggles to which “Lovers Rock” belongs. These may add layers of subtext to “Lovers Rock” beyond its immediate resonance, positioning an intimate drama within the wider fabric of racial tensions. But this swift installment sings its own tune, too — or, rather, it marches to one helluva beat.
Set across a single night in 1980 and loaded with a soundtrack from the eponymous reggae music, “Lovers Rock” is a paean to an energized youth culture taking control of its surroundings, despite the social unrest around them. Experienced on its own terms, this delightful snapshot of boozy dance-floor seduction plays like an artist unleashing years of repressed good vibes by applying his lyrical style to pure, unbridled bliss for almost the entirety of its 68 minutes.
Yes, 68 minutes! That running time speaks to the curious identity of the “Small Axe” series, which McQueen has packaged as a set of films despite the episodic context of their release: Two of the five installments were selected for Cannes earlier this year; one of them, “Mangrove,” runs twice as long; and Amazon will release the entire anthology in the U.S. after the festival run. (The others involve true stories of racial injustice, including the notorious tale of the Mangrove Nine, and the experiences of former Black police officer Leroy Logan.)
Yet even if “Lovers Rock” hovers somewhere between episode and movie on paper, it’s undoubtedly cinematic art, working small wonders with a sophisticated blend of minor-key storytelling and vibrant choreography that transforms the entire experience into a free-form musical.
While it’s the only fictional entry in the series, the lightweight plot matters less than the jubilance surrounding it. “Lovers Rock” builds to a familiar kind of meet-cute scenario, with teenager Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and her pal Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) sneaking off to a house party in the Notting Hill neighborhood, where most of the action takes place. Inside, the beats are loud and constant, with ebullient deejay Samson (Kadeem Ramsay) unleashing one soulful tune after another as the dance floor responds on cue.
The cramped room becomes a remarkable centerpiece for the encounters that follow, as Martha’s abandoned by her friend, rebuffs the advances of pushy hustler Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby), and welcomes those of the more cordial Franklyn (Micheal Ward). McQueen drifts in and out of this minimalist narrative, returning again and again to the gyrations of the crowd. Movie, TV, whatever: It’s one of the best dance parties ever filmed, full stop.
Co-written by Courttia Newland, McQueen’s script is littered with details from its insular world: There’s the specter of the cross, hovering on the walls and carried ominously by a man across town, hinting at the rebellious nature of the party at hand. There are also a handful crude white characters who glare at Martha and her peers from the street corners, pointing to the racism simmering on the sidelines of her life.
But these factors rarely overshadow the tender drama at hand, as Martha navigates the undulating rhythms of a wild night. While the thick West Indian accents ingrains the story in cultural specificity, Martha has her own distinct, combustible means of engaging with the people around her. “You talk fiercely,” one potential suitor tells her. “Some may say,” she spits back, circling back to the dance.
And oh, what a dance. The appeal of “Lovers Rock” has less to do with how characters explain themselves in words than sheer physicality. Working with rising cinematographer Shabier Kirchner (whose previous credits “Bull” and “Skate Kitchen” were similar naturalistic snapshots of irascible youth), McQueen’s camera roves through one boisterous dance number after another, and while Coral Messam served as choreographer, there’s an organic quality to the movement that makes the sudden cohesion all the more remarkable.
As a salute to the potential for lovers rock music to capture the mood of the moment, these sequences careen through one small wonder after another, from the giddiness of “Kung Fu Fighting” that finds everyone gleefully chopping through the air to the unquestionable apex of the movie, an a cappella rendition of Janet Kay’s 1979 single “Silly Games.”
Here, as the music drops out and the crowd keeps singing — for five mesmerizing minutes — one woman’s high-pitch wail resolves on the same bluesy note, the feet stamping coalesces into a mighty beat, and the collective performance transforms into a dazzling, hypnotic representation of cultural solidarity coalescing in real time. (It’s also McQueen’s boldest maneuver since he held that disturbing closeup of Carey Mulligan singing “New York, New York” for the same duration in “Shame.”)
McQueen obsesses over the ritualistic nature of the dance floor, with ample booze and smoke surrounding a symphony of gyrating hips and flailing arms galore. The setting has been so vividly realized, in fact, that “Lovers Rock” can’t help but lose some of its pull whenever it drifts elsewhere. One tense outdoor encounter with some neighborhood thugs injects palpable suspense into the proceedings, but another melodramatic showdown between Martha and an abusive party guest borders on cheesiness at odds with the more sophisticated activities unfolding place indoors.
However, newcomer Aubyn provides an anchor throughout the proceedings, as Martha undergoes a remarkable set of confrontations. Yet after her first conflict of the night, she returns to the dance floor, lost and dazed, until the rhythms and romance overtake her once more. It’s no surprise that this main set provides a robust cinematic foundation for everything that happens in “Lovers Rock.” An apparent passion (McQueen would have been just a touch younger than these characters at the time), the project harkens back to the filmmaker’s breakthrough 1993 installation piece “Bear,” when he wrestled with another Black man in the nude. Nearly 30 years later, “Lovers Rock” again fixates on colliding Black bodies, unearthing complex emotions and desires that transcend linguistic boundaries.
In this case, though, McQueen adopts a celebratory tone, embodying the immersive joie de vivre of Martha’s carefree outing. That tone will likely not carry over to the rest of “Small Axe,” as much of the series reportedly tackles heavier historical events, and this entry is its lone fictional offering. Regardless of the big picture, however, “Lovers Rock” is a fast, loose statement of its own — a galvanizing salute to finding freedom from the system by living in the moment.
“Lovers Rock” premiered as the opening night selection at the 2020 New York Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it, along with the rest of the “Small Axe” entries, this fall.