'Lovers Rock' Review: An Ecstatic Ode to Music and Community

Steve McQueen’s miniseries Small Axe has been making waves through the festival circuit and if Lovers Rock is any indication of quality, then it may well prove to be the cinematic event of the year. Commissioned by the BBC, this anthology series is comprised of five films telling different stories involving London’s West Indian community from the 1960s to the 1980s. The title is derived from an African proverb popular in the Caribbean: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” and reflects the themes of political resistance, civil rights, and protest that lie at the series’ heart. This subject feels intensely of the moment for the United States, where a summer of nightmarish police brutality is being followed by an election where the President openly encourages violence from his white supremacist base to suppress the vote. In response to the horrific events of the summer, McQueen went as far as to put a point on it, dedicating Small Axe to: “George Floyd and all the other Black people that have been murdered, seen or unseen, because of who they are, in the US, UK and elsewhere.”

The title of this episode of Small Axe, Lovers Rock, refers to the less political and more romantic strain of London-based reggae which became popular in the 80s. Mirroring this shift away from the political, the film offers a respite from the explicit rights struggles covered by the series and instead is a swirling celebration of music and community. Yet, even in such a celebratory space, there’s a simmering undercurrent of tension and violence bubbling just below the surface. However, the focus here from McQueen and co-writer Courittia Newland, is a beautiful depiction of the ways that joy can still blossom bolstered by the resilience of community. The film largely takes place over a single night at a house party, and though we follow several characters at the outset, we eventually focus on Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) who travels over to this party with her friend in search of dancing and romance.

Lovers Rock (dir. Steve McQueen, 2020)
Lovers Rock (dir. Steve McQueen, 2020)

It’s a delight to see McQueen, known for his more somber works like Hunger and 12 Years A Slave, film scenes with such unrestrained lightness. The centerpiece of the film is a dance sequence built around Janet Kay’s Silly Games: a song as emblematic of the lovers rock genre as it is of the film itself. What follows is both unforgettable and transcendent under McQueen’s assured direction. The camera lingers close to the dancing bodies and bobs and sways in close-up. Just as the music quietly fades, the song continues in stunning acapella as the dancers sing, accompanied by the rhythmic shuffling of feet. In a film so robustly dense with music this moment with its hushed reverence serves as a testament of communal power.

McQueen layers these intertwining thoughts on community throughout the ostensibly straightforward narrative. When Martha’s cousin shows up later in the evening his anger seems to pierce through the party atmosphere, and yet, in a show of tact, he is brought over to the DJ booth and allowed to jump on the microphone, an outlet for his frustrations and further brought into the fold. This suggestion of music as a pure outlet is later fully realized when the Kunta Kinte Dub by The Revolutionaries plays. The men fill the dancefloor and begin to ecstatically mosh and chant together. It’s an electric moment capturing the raw energy that has up till now been subdued by the gentler songs. As the track ends, the DJ goes straight back beginning and plays it once again allowing this furious energy to hold and dominate the room.

Lovers Rock (dir. Steve McQueen, 2020)
Lovers Rock (dir. Steve McQueen, 2020)

In the chaos of the party, Martha eventually connects with Franklyn, a handsome stranger played by Michael Ward. The two end up leaving together just as The Revolutionaries throw the dance floor into controlled chaos. A tender shot of the two riding a bicycle in the cold light of early morning evokes the tender undercurrent of Lovers Rock. Sure, there is anger, frustration, heartbreak, and simmering racism waiting to burst into the screen, but McQueen holds firm that within this moment, we can let these two young lovers have their ride. The shot starts off keeping them small in the corner of the frame, and as the camera pushes in and they begin to fill the screen, I could feel my heart filling as well.

This review is part of my ongoing coverage of New York Film Festival. 

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The Ten Best Films of 2020​

With 2020 finally drawing to a close, lets take one last look at the wonderful films that came out in this otherwise devastating year.