By Alex McPherson
Director Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock,” the second installment of “Small Axe,” is a masterful work of art that enriches both the mind and soul.
Taking place almost entirely within a West London house party in the 1980s, “Lovers Rock” visualizes the thrill of an escape from day-to-day life. Love is in the air, particularly for West Indian immigrants Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Michael Ward), as the reggae music plays on. Although threats of violence lurk on the periphery, this get together brims with joy — providing Black partygoers with an energizing escape from an unforgiving world.
Despite its minimalist premise, there’s much to absorb in “Lovers Rock,” from the ingenious cinematography to the thought-provoking themes being explored. This is a film for anyone who appreciates the craft of filmmaking and the ways the medium can transport viewers to a different time and place. In fact, anyone with a heartbeat can enjoy McQueen’s film on some level.
From start to finish, we feel right there with the characters, and anticipation for the evening is palpable. McQueen makes use of all the senses to set the mood and establish the gathering as an alluring, rapturous haven.
When the film begins, we see a crew maneuvering sound equipment, the camera capturing each click and clack of cables snapping into place. All the while, a group of women cook curry in the background, enthusiastically singing the main chorus of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” as delicious aromas waft through the surroundings. Smell-O-Vision be damned, this gets the job done equally as well.
When the party begins, “Lovers Rock” becomes downright mesmerizing. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen for the film’s entire 68-minute runtime. Indeed, I became despondent when the end credits rolled, wishing I could keep watching for another hour.
While reggae music blasts through the speakers, viewers feel in the middle of the action, as the camera weaves throughout the environment to capture moments of both sensual intimacy and rambunctious exuberance among the partygoers. “Lovers Rock” all but encourages viewers to get up and dance along with them, welcoming us to join in a meaningful experience.
It’s difficult to convey just how effective McQueen’s approach is, an example of pure cinematic bliss that conveys its atmosphere with precision and tactile, sensory detail. Just make sure you turn on subtitles because, like at any party, it’s difficult to sometimes understand what people are saying.
Amid all the dancing and romance, however, lie themes that ensure “Lovers Rock” works on a deeper level beyond its immersive qualities. We get the sense that the partygoers want to hold onto these moments as long as possible — their fears and sorrows disappearing, if only for a brief time, in the party’s intoxicating vibes and ample possibilities.
One powerful sequence in particular involves the partygoers engaging in an extended a-capella rendition of “Silly Games,” infusing the lyrics with a bittersweet, mournful weight as they repeat the chorus over and over again, long after the music stops playing.
The party represents an egalitarian space, in a sense, and McQueen meaningfully contrasts it with the harshness of the outside world, and the racism the central characters endure out in it.
The film also emphasizes that safety isn’t guaranteed within the party itself, even when one feels most comfortable. Bammy, for example (suavely portrayed by Daniel Francis-Swaby), lures some characters, and potentially viewers themselves, into a false sense of security as troubling impulses take hold down the road.
In this way, “Lovers Rock” depicts a different kind of rebellion than “Mangrove,” one against the challenges of everyday life via a gathering that reaches transcendent heights, while still containing its own dangers. McQueen’s film shows people grabbing hold of a moment and cherishing it, creating a sense of communal joy and togetherness stronger than the forces of injustice — over too soon, but life-affirming and oh, so enjoyable.
Will this film receive another A+, you may ask? Why yes, yes it will.
“Lovers Rock” is part of “Small Axe,” an anthology directed by Steve McQueen that is an Amazon Prime TV mini-series. This drama’s run-time is 1 hour, 10 min. Alex’s Rating: A+,
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.