SMALL AXE: LOVERS ROCK Review
*Editor’s Note: The reviewer of this film went on to consume the rest of Steve McQueen’s SMALL AXE series on Amazon Prime. While the series is originally sequenced as MANGROVE, LOVERS ROCK, RED, WHITE AND BLUE, ALEX WHEATLE, and EDUCATION, the reviewer started the series with this film. While each film can stand on their own without seeing any of the others, the reviewer here suggests watching these films in the way that they are sequenced. Whatever order you watch them in, prepare to be awed by a filmmaker at the top of his game*
Throughout its entire 70 minute or so runtime, LOVERS ROCK is an irresistible depiction of casual joy. Primarily set in the pounding cramped halls of house party in 1980’s West London, director/writer Steve McQueen crafts a movie that is all about the feeling. As an entry in his “is it TV/is it film” series SMALL AXE, which depicts the ebbs and flows of the West Indian community in London throughout the years of 1969 through 1982, LOVERS ROCK comes as a much needed reprieve after the series’ first “episode”, MANGROVE, an episode centered around a government keen on making life hell for its minority citizens. While MANGROVE dealt with the lows of a community facing off against inhospitable forces assailing their culture, LOVERS ROCK acts as a lowkey yet momentous celebration of life and love within it.
Captured with sharp vibrancy by Shabier Kirchner’s roving and personal camera, McQueen and his crew mosey around the party scene, latching onto any and all characters and events that are bound to turn up at a house party. Whether they be boisterous and energetic DJ’s to lovers both ill-fated and promised, who you are outside of the halls of this party matters little as any doubts, concerns, and worries are thrown out in favor of the one constant tethering force that is the throbbing and uniting party. With McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland focusing on so many characters that rove in and out of the scene, it’s a little hard to determine on just who to latch onto as an anchoring force in the beginning moments but as the story meanders on, the depiction of a blooming, if possibly short, romance between two partygoers, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward) personifies a night of untethered joy. While at first, their interactions are like any other impromptu pick up session you’d see at a party or club, with Franklyn trying in vain to impress Martha with his casual swagger much to Martha’s early disdain, a feeling persists between the two and soon the transfixing powers of the party and its body-to-body dances bring these two lovers closer to something that may last long after the party winds down. LOVERS ROCK allows this relationship play out naturally as Ms. St. Aubyn and Mr. Ward elevate past easy come-ons and into the undeniable physical chemistry existing between them. What results is a sweet and pleasant love story that naturally fades into the background of the bigger celebration at hand before emerging once more by film’s end.
Even outside of that sweet and light love story, LOVERS ROCK stands out because of its unmistakable feeling. While certainly not the first movie to base its entirety around a feeling that’s hard to describe, much less depict, Mr. McQueen once again proves why he is one of the most consistently exciting directors working in the industry with a film that uses simplicity to capture complicated feelings. While there are some B-plots that feel a little too dramatic for the film’s overall lowkey vibe, LOVERS ROCK acts as a stellar mood piece, with the mood being that of a late night house party. Thanks to excellent sound design backed by a wonderfully buzzing soundtrack centered around reggae slow jams and get-downs (including one show stopping “musical” interlude centered around Janet Key’s “Silly Games”), McQueen and his crew are content to sit around and just live in this moment in time. While other filmmakers would be content to inject comedic hijinks and mine unnecessary drama from its setting, McQueen lets his party-goers move freely. There isn’t a lot of dialogue here, but even so the characters in this film communicate with and through their bodies: every glance across the room, every touch of the skin emitting a deeper level of connection that no words could concoct. While some viewers may be put off by the fact this is basically a film depicting a house party where mostly nothing happens, LOVERS ROCK holds emotional rewards for those who embrace the party offered by Mr. McQueen.
But the beauty of this small little film is not just because it so lovingly captures the feeling of those nights where love and life seemed so far and so close to one another. As mentioned earlier, LOVERS ROCK is placed second in the SMALL AXE series right after the equally excellent MANGROVE and if one was to watch these films in that order, LOVERS ROCK thrives as a celebration of one’s own culture and joy in the face of undeniable persecution. For most of the party-goers in this film, again all of them being of West Indian descent in the primarily white city of London, this party isn’t just a exercise in wild behavior; it’s a moment of celebration and perhaps even a center of protection from the ills and violence of persecution that they’ll must certainly come face-to-face with once this party ends. And therein lies the true power of LOVERS ROCK; yes, it’s a film about a much needed and much deserved party celebrating one’s own culture but it’s also a wrenching stop gap for these characters before they’re once more sent into a real world that is filled with hate and persecution.
On its own or as the piece to the larger puzzle that McQueen slowly brings to together in his engrossing SMALL AXE series, LOVERS ROCK is always a moment, always breathing with prosperous life. It’s a celebration of the parties that have past and the parties that will nevertheless come. It’s a movie to get lost in, to live in, and to never forget. As it goes for the party-goers, the party will always end but even when the party ends the memories never go away and in a flawed, scary world such as ours, memories of those sweet, sweaty nights are all we have sometimes.