BFI London Film Festival: Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock
Lovers Rock
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, Michael Ward, Shaniqua Okwok and Kedar Williams-Stirling

by Lewis Church

Since making the shift from visual artist to movie director, Steve McQueen has created a startling and challenging body of work, including the feature films 12 Years a Slave, Hunger and Widows. Lovers Rock is a less monumental shift, from films that are decidedly for the cinema to ones that will most likely be viewed on a smaller TV or laptop screen, but is nonetheless still a demonstration of his visual mastery and command of emotion. Part of the ‘Small Axe’ anthology series, it will be broadcast on BBC One and released on Amazon Prime Video, bringing this essential and vibrant piece of filmmaking into the homes of its audience. Welcome it in.

The interrelated stories of the Small Axe series document the Black British experience in London in the 20th Century, a timely and important project for our turbulent and intolerant times. Lovers Rock is due to the be the second part of the series, charting the course of a blues party in Ladbroke Grove, West London as a vivid time capsule of London in the 1980s. The event is at the most basic a house party with paid admission, but it’s also a gathering for the West Indian community, and an incredible night out for the characters we meet. The at-first nervous and unsure Martha shimmying down the drainpipe of her home to make her way there, dancing to the music blaring out through the house and meeting Franklyn, the charming and engaging young man she dances with. The imposing and nearly silent bouncer, the sound system DJs, the first-generation elders who come down to join in with the young people’s party. To be sure, racism lurks in some literal shadowy corners, as does a toxic and fragile masculinity, but the ease with which McQueen and his co-writer Courttia Newland integrate these moments into their wider narrative of community and joy is masterful.

McQueen’s direction is often almost inseparable from his practice as a visual artist, and he has an eye for minute details that provide a deep and palpable context for the story to happen within. Sweat drips down the padded wallpaper in the living room, characters rifle through handfuls of change loose in a pocket or grip speaker wire between their teeth to strip it. His pacing too feels drawn from another artistic discipline – long shots of hands and furtive groping, extended singalongs and track rewinds that are never, ever boring but mesmerising and deeply moving. The more than five minutes of the crowd singing Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ is an incredibly ambitious piece of filmmaking, trusting the audience to sink into the music as the characters do.

The specificity of this story is a hugely important aspect of its success and its most important quality. But there is a universality to the energy and reckless abandon of a house party too, which is so wonderful to see represented on screen. Even if the ones that you went to as a teenager were different, played different music or were populated by those who shared a different background, watching this in lockdown made me ache for a party to attend. People sitting too close on stairs, smoking in the garden, drinking in hallways and queuing for the toilet are not necessarily sights that I thought I might miss but I do, and McQueen, at 51, captures the thrill of a young person’s night out better than many whose work is better known for fun, humour and sex. When you watch this film (and you absolutely should), play it loud and absorb its energy. Like any great party, it will reinvigorate you.


Leave a Reply