The house sits on the corner of Ladbroke Grove. Two young men are tasked with removing all the important furniture and putting it behind locked doors. Ladies cook up fresh curries in huge saucepans. A huge sound-system is carefully wheeled in; the DJ does a mic test. Tonight is the night of the big house party. £1 at the door. £1 for drinks.
Lovers Rock, set in the early 80s, is the second film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, and acts like a palette cleanser between the righteous fury of Mangrove and the (presumably) more challenging story of Alex Wheatle to come. While a minor work compared to his previous output, Lovers Rock offers a unique recreation of Black British history so often neglected in UK film.
While Mangrove focused on Trinidadian activists and referenced Trini culture through soca music and writers, Lovers Rock — referring to a slow, romantic version of reggae — is a distinctly Jamaican film. From the Rastafarian dress to the Red Stripe beer to the music, it provides a rich evocation of how Jamaican culture thrived in the UK.
Over 68 brief minutes, Steve McQueen doesn’t bother with setting up conflicts or providing resolution. Instead, he wants to really evoke what a Black house party might have looked like at the beginning of the 1980s when nightclubs were still dominated by white people and their music. And the recreation of time and place is impeccable, aided by camerawork that expertly captures the tiny sensorial details — hands touching, sweat dripping off the walls, cigarettes being lit— that make a house party special. Yet, compared to the urgency of Mangrove, there is a feeling of smallness that the film can’t quite shake off.
The music — a bit of dub, reggae and disco — is enjoyable, especially the use of an MC to provide a raucous atmosphere, yet as the film drags on and the house fills up, McQueen never really intensifies the vibe or switches the sound up, making it feel a little same-y. It depends on your personal attachment to the music; one ten-minute song tested my patience considerably.
Steve McQueen portrays the dance floor as the ultimate romantic arena, a place where liaisons will be forged, broken, and remade again in the space of one or two songs. For those singletons missing the tangible excitement of heading to a party and finding a partner amidst the dark lights, cigarette smoke and spilled beer, Lovers Rock might be the next best thing.
If the stacked film has one central protagonist, it’s probably Martha (newcomer Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn). She heads to the party on the bus with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). After a few failed come-ons, she strikes up a connection with the handsome Franklyn (Micheal Ward), who shows the other men how it’s done by mixing mystery with courtesy. Together they form the film’s emotional bond, especially when the party is over and both lovers have to return to their real lives. Crucially, in the brief company of white people, they lose their Jamaican patois in favour of a standard Cockney accent.
This gives the film a deeply bittersweet tone, evoking the romantic ensemble adventures of Richard Linklater’s hangout movies such as Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!. Yet by making the film so naturalist while dialling down any sense of true urgency, Lovers Rock can’t quite draw out why this night is so special.
Review screener provided
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Lovers Rock brilliantly recreates Black British history while failing to imbue its night out with any sense of urgency.
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