Director Steve McQueen (Widows, 12 Years a Slave) time travels back to 1980 to honour a marginalised but much-mythologised reggae house-party scene in Lovers Rock – the high point of his five-part anthology Small Axe.
The series of stand-alone films – named for a proverb popularised by a defiant Bob Marley song: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe” – are being broadcast on the BBC in McQueen’s home country, powerfully inserting themselves into mainstream discussions of British identity, history and race.
Each of the films takes a civic-minded trip down memory lane, spotlighting the unsung achievements and struggles of West Indian immigrants and their kids from the late 60s through to the 80s — a generation that includes McQueen – as well as the spaces that communities created for themselves in the face of entrenched racism.
In part two, Lovers Rock, that space is an anonymous West London home emptied out for a Saturday night Blues party; a place of refuge and pleasure and release, where snatches of Jamaican patois are heard alongside a rousing reggae soundtrack to rival that of Franco Rosso’s 1980 drama Babylon.
The anticipation is half the fun. McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland warm up the audience, moving through clearly established rituals: a sound system being set-up inside a living room; the sizzle of a hot comb running through a teenage girl’s hair; and another – the heroine of this narrative-light mood piece, Martha (newcomer Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) – sneaking out her bedroom window while her unsuspecting parents sleep.
The overwhelming attention to detail pushes all the sensory buttons as it conjures the era vividly, from the partygoers’ outfits – a glamorous parade of sharp double-breasted suits, glossy heels and home-made, shimmering sateen and polyester dresses – to the DJ rifling through his crate of 45s, and the scent of goat curry bubbling away in the kitchen.
This specific culture – and Black British lived experience more generally – is so under-represented on screen that McQueen and co. faced immense public pressure to be flawlessly ‘authentic’. Perhaps as a consequence, every lush image or spoken word feels freighted with significance. (A flurry of think-pieces followed the film’s debut, asking if McQueen did indeed ‘get it right’.)
But rather than recreating one’s youth like some kind of museum – a la Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood home in Roma, or at the other end of the spectrum, the foul toilet from CBGBs that was put on display at MOMA – Lovers Rock is a living, breathing tribute. The collective vision it offers reveals McQueen’s interest in the way that memories morph over time, gaining gravitas as they’re passed around, taking on a life of their own.
Alongside the loose Cinderella love story that blooms between Martha and a handsome stranger she meets at the party (Micheal Ward), the music, the rich, glowing colours and the kaleidoscopic vintage decor and fashions seem touched by magic, or perhaps the woozy layer of smoke that hangs in the air.
Much like the hypnotic long party scene from Olivier Assayas’ teen drama Cold Water (1994), this is a reimagining of memories that have been wistfully heightened in the passing years.
At one point, the wallpaper literally begins to sweat, like in some oft-told anecdote; at another point, reggae legend Dennis ‘Blackbeard’ Bovell joins the dancefloor, a ghostly relic from the past, looking on with crinkly eyes, singing along to the hit song that he wrote.
In the film’s centrepiece, Bovell’s stately baritone can be heard under the voices that reach for the high notes of Janet Kay’s Silly Games (a tune that saw lovers rock, the romantic reggae subgenre that gives the film its name, cross over into the pop mainstream), as the young crowd spontaneously begin to sing along a cappella-style.
Throughout, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner (Skate Kitchen) darts and weaves through the room as hungry bodies couple up – including Martha and her newfound beau.
Channelling the hot-blooded grace of a Claire Denis dance scene, his camera alights on expressive movements and gestures – hands trailing elbows or caressing backs, hips winding, groins grinding, and one young woman who dances alone, eyes closed, with euphoria openly writ across her face.
There are background threats of violence and misogyny, yet the party remains that rare space of youthful abandon and bodily freedom – free from the expectations of strict, church-going families, and from a hostile white society that lurks at the periphery (and is confronted head-on in the films that bookend Lovers Rock).
McQueen’s historical features have tended to examine injustice and suffering at length – and in sometimes uncomfortably painterly compositions – but here, just as the DIY space offers an escape, so does the film.
Set during a time when Black people were often unwelcome in white-run clubs and Black-run clubs were being shuttered by the authorities, Lovers Rock is intent on self-actualising a joyful alternate reality where the only police siren is the one cranked by the MC between songs.
It’s a yearning that connects the period piece to a fraught present, and a boldly hopeful future. For as long as the music plays, all troubles are banished, or so it seems to promise.
The partygoers stretch it out as long as possible. The men bounce on the floorboards and rip off their clothes, imploring the DJ to spin The Revolutionaries’ Kunta Kinte, a dub track with a spellbinding synth whistle and a spiritual bass drop, again, and again, and again.
Small Axe streams on Binge from December 19.