In Mangrove, the first installment of Steve McQueen’s anthology series Small Axe, there is a sequence in which the sound of steel drums commences an impromptu exhibition of singing and dancing from the guests outside Frank Crichlow’s titular restaurant. In the hands of another filmmaker, the scene would have lasted between 30 seconds and a minute, offering the audience a brief moment of respite in the midst of a succession of aggressive attacks from members of the metropolitan police force before moving on swiftly to the peaceful demonstration which triggers the second half’s events. McQueen, however, lingers on the moment for longer than is perhaps necessary, but in doing so he conveys the sense of communal spirit and defiance which characterise the community of West Indian immigrants in the Notting Hill area. Lovers Rock, the second entry in McQueen’s series, could be described as a 68-minute extension of this scene from its predecessor. An effervescent, sultry counter to the intense and emotionally overwhelming Mangrove, this piece marks a welcome change of pace for McQueen in his filmography, demonstrating his ability to craft an engaging love story distinguished by reggae music.
Followers of Steve McQueen’s work will acknowledge that he is not renowned for creating feel-good experiences and have occasionally been disturbingly raw and uncompromising in their treatment of their subject matter. When he has captured instances of intimacy in his films, there has usually been a darkness underscoring them. In 2011’s Shame, physical attraction manifests rather graphically, as viewers follow the life of a bachelor struggling with his sex addiction. Widows, McQueen’s 2018 heist effort, opens with the juxtaposition of Viola Davis and Liam Neeson’s characters kissing while in bed together and the tragic conclusion of an attempted robbery involving the latter. In Lovers Rock, however, very little of this overriding gloom is allowed to bubble up to the surface, as the director keeps the emphasis firmly on the music and romance on display at the film’s main setting: a blues party in 1980.
Music and romance are intertwined in the reggae style of lovers rock, from which the film gets its title, and many of the genre’s anthems are featured during the house party in Notting Hill which makes up almost the entirety of the work. The soothing, sensual qualities which delineate this musical style are vividly evoked through McQueen’s direction, complemented by Shabier Kirchner’s gorgeous cinematography. As various members of the gathering dance with each together, McQueen utilises close-ups to excellent effect, capturing expressions of affection and euphoria, both gentle and exuberant, through an emphasis on the entire body rather than purely focusing on an individual’s face. The manner in which he depicts intimacy on screen is reminiscent of the way artists like Wong Kar-Wai and Barry Jenkins have showcased love cinematically; viewers can almost sense every touch and breath given and taken by the characters due to how intricately the images are filmed. However, these shots never come across as too clinical, with McQueen allowing viewers attention to divert from one pair of attendees to another, conveying the looseness and sensation of liberty which everyone in the room appears to be experiencing.
Although Lovers Rock contains very few instances of conflict or tension, there is an air of sadness which pervades the house party in that it serves as a rare space in West London for young Black Brits to come together and celebrate their culture. While the events of this film take place almost a decade after those depicted in Mangrove, members of this community are still being marginalised by authoritarian institutions. Subsequently, these gatherings hold an even greater significance, and McQueen ensures that the audience is aware of the excitement which consumes the attendees prior to the party’s commencement. Characters, notably the main protagonist Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), are shown getting dressed up for the occasion, providing a dazzling showcase for the impeccable work done by costume designer Jacqueline Durran whose outfits reflect the cultural hybridity of the lovers rock scene’s fashion. There is also a scene where two women sing Janet Jay’s ‘Silly Games’ while preparing food for the party, a moment which foreshadows arguably the film’s signature sequence where the houseguests sing along to the song, totally immersed in their collective rendition of the anthem as the sound of the track itself fades away and the characters’ voices take prominence. Despite being rooted in a specific cultural context, McQueen’s encapsulation of a ‘night out’ feels strikingly authentic and earnest, highlighting the anticipation, riskiness, haziness and spontaneity associated with many of them. 2020 has effectively rendered nights out and parties obsolete for the time being, but Steve McQueen reminds viewers of how, when held for the right reasons, they serve to shape young people’s sense of community and relationships.
The placement of Lovers Rock in the rollout of the Small Axe series is quite intriguing. It makes for a welcome change of pace after how arresting and anxiety-inducing Mangrove was, but casual viewers who might not be aware of McQueen’s work could find this entry to be somewhat inconsequential and lacking in substance. While it is much more of a ‘mood piece’ than its predecessor, there is ultimately an awful lot to unpack and admire in Lovers Rock, from McQueen’s blissful illustration of young love to its demonstration of the importance of a musical genre for a particular community.
Lovers Rock is currently available on the BBC iPlayer, and will be available on Amazon Prime in the USA on Friday November 27th.