This magical and immersive dance party is a prescription for the 2020 blues.
Lovers Rock is the second in a five-film anthology from director Steve McQueen. Read my review of the first film, Mangrove, here.
God, remember parties? Remember the thumping bass of a dance-worthy track reverberating through your spine? The moment the drinks or the drugs ascend you to that sweet spot of joy in the middle of the dance floor? The heat and the sweat and the indelible smell of sex that is only produced by too many bodies crowded together in a dark room?
A colored LED bulb in your bedside lamp and the forced fun of a Zoom rave could never hope to replicate the fundamental experience of being out in the world sharing joy with real-live humans. We’re a long way from getting back to where we were before this microscopic bomb blew us all apart from each other, but the hypnotic, radiant bliss of Lovers Rock comes damn close to making you feel like you’re back at the party.
Before he was a director of features Steve McQueen got his start composing experimental art films, a style of filmmaking that is less concerned with narrative than the cultivation of a mood, the drawing-out of an emotional state. Those same techniques are put to expert use in Lovers Rock, a film where only the faintest traces of plot glimmer beneath a euphoric river of pure vibes.
Loosely, the plot centers around Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a young woman in 1980 who sneaks out of the house to attend the annual “Blues party” attended by other young members of London’s African-Caribbean community. The film follows Martha and a handful of other party-goers as they flirt, dance, sing, and fall in love through the course of one hypnotic, music-filled night.
From the moment Martha steps into the house the achingly rich colors of Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography envelop the frame. A sea of crimson reds, lemon yellows, and electric turquoise illuminate the faces of the party’s entranced participants. Shot almost entirely on handheld, the camera immerses itself in the crowd, one moment jostled off its axis by their exuberant reaction to a certified bop, the next quietly contemplating the way a woman’s hand falls on her dance partner’s neck during a slow groove. There’s magic in the air here, and everyone — including the viewer — is under its spell.
There’s an almost mythical quality to the modest house on an otherwise ordinary London street where the party takes place. Inside, the Black party-goers are welcome to laugh, dance, and freely engage in the collective joy of one another, but outside, danger lurks. Like wolves in the forest, a group of white men pursue Martha when she steps outside of the invisible enchanted bubble surrounding the house. The party’s nameless, statuesque bouncer stands guard as a sort of protective sentinel, defending all who dwell within from the dangers of the outside world, whether that’s a group of prowling bros or a lurking police car ready to snatch up any who stray too far from the flock.
Lovers Rock is structured like a playlist, with scenes unfolding over the course of a song, each with its own distinctive style. The slow sensuality of Janet Kaye’s “Silly Games” is the backdrop to one of the most erotic sex scenes ever put to film, though neither participant ever removes one stitch of clothing. The exertions during a mens-only dance circle set to The Revolutionaries’ addictive “Kunta Kinte Dub” at times reach the fevered ecstasy of a religious experience. Some viewers may be unprepared for McQueen’s willingness to let scenes on the dance floor go on, and on, and on well past when other directors would have cut away, but here they only add to the immersive experience of being inside the moment (those with access to legal cannabis are strongly encouraged to partake).
The film’s spell is broken only when it half-heartedly attempts to insert conflict, which is short-lived and swiftly resolved. I prayed McQueen would not include one particular scene even as I knew it was coming, and its presence mars an otherwise pure and joyful celebration of music and mood. Even after the truly perfect full-circle ending the film keeps you under its spell as you remain glued to your seat, grooving to one last song while the credits roll.
Small Axe: Lovers Rock is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.
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