Sometimes the most beautiful films can spring from even the simplest ideas. In Lovers Rock, a new film in the “Small Axe” miniseries collection directed and co-written by Steve McQueen, we’re taken on an extended, cinematic ride through a single day in 1980s West London, where an eclectic group of Black twentysomethings set up for a house party, enjoy the festivities throughout the night, and then feel its aftermath the next morning. To describe the plot with words can’t do justice to what Lovers Rock wants to be about, but I’ll try anyway: this is a film blasting some seriously good vibes.
Though the focus of the bare-boned plot bounces around several partygoers, many of them unnamed, the camera finds time to frequently settle on Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn in her debut role) and Franklyn (Michael Ward), who strike up a flirtation early on in the night and spar for each other’s affections over various blues numbers related to the titular sub-genre, one of the most notably tracked being Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” which is teased early on as the pop song of the moment as we see a group of cooks for the party sing it affectionately in a cappella, only for the original tune to be played in its entirety halfway through this short, 68-minute film.
McQueen even gives the number a chance to end as it began, with the dozens of dancers extending the song into an a cappella overture, capturing the feeling of when a single melody can captivate a whole community for a short period of time, to the point where everyone knows every beat and lyric by heart. We don’t learn much about any of these characters along the way, but that’s certainly the point. They’re here to get away from all that.
These big moments and extended scenes in such a short film would be wonderfully appreciated on their own, but it’s really the small touches that make this isolated night come alive in its archived history. Where dresses are made by hand and regarded as such, the dialogue is authentically tied to the mores of 80s West London, and the choice of music — a sumptuous mix of soul and reggae — is far from singular and concisely explainable. For a film to do this much to redeem Carl Douglas’s overplayed “Kung Fu Fighting” is an achievement unto itself.
But the magic of Lovers Rock is in how its specificity becomes irresistibly universal over time. You can’t help but see your own experiences in the joy of these partygoers, despite the difference of time period and cultural touchstones. Many who watch this will recognize the guy who looks primed to start trouble and needs to be kicked out, or the one who’s had a bit too much to drink and is ruining everyone’s good time.
It would be so easy for McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland to dwell on the romantic entanglements of our central couple in the works, but they understand that there is more to the party than the drama of hooking up. There’s an almost hymnic nature to the proceedings, like a church service off the rails, marked even by the sight of a man carrying a cross in the other direction before everything kicks off, as if to signify this night will pivot to a strikingly different mode of worship.
Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, who so easily captured the energized flavor of teenage life in New York through 2018’s Skate Kitchen, serves as D.P. here and brings that same fly-on-the-wall atmosphere to far more contained spaces. We glide through these rooms and halls in messy, yet still perfect sync with the ever-evolving soundtrack.
The film was obviously meant to be consumed by an audience less pained for the pre-COVID days when intimate, social gatherings were still nightly affairs. To that end, Lovers Rock serves an unintended, secondary function in its nostalgia for a different, rose-colored time. But even in its ecstasy, the film doesn’t ignore the tension lurking outside the party’s four walls, where racist, classist dangers could in seconds rear their heads and disrupt everyone’s fun, their cherished, escapist ritual away from the realities right in their neighborhood. There is no utopia in the past, but films like Lovers Rock can help drive its viewers to accepting that when it comes to a world where music is the key to happiness, we should accept no substitutes.