Having mastered the art of the heist, Steve McQueen returns to Britain with an extremely promising concept: the Small Axe anthology, a collection of five films centered around Black British people of West Indian descent, whose lives and experiences have shaped the UK in ways few institutions care to recognize today. As evidenced in the sprawling scope of this project and his press conference on the subject, McQueen’s work is intended to make waves. While sadly unable to be showcased at this year’s Cannes as originally intended, the first chapter of Small Axe has arrived courtesy of the New York Film Festival, enticingly titled Lovers Rock.
Named after the reggae-inflected style of romantic, lilting music, Lovers Rock passionately displays a love for music, rhythm, and the indelible life of a party. Complete with patient, diligent sequences in which characters meticulously set up the upcoming soiree, McQueen’s film strives to recreate every tone and texture one might find in a bona fide West Indian house party in 1980s west London. The charm bursts from every groovy, period-appropriate costume and furnishing, as Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography glides in and out of rooms, observing the speakers being set up, the food being prepared, outfits being vetted, and various other pieces coming together. The script, written by McQueen and Courttia Newland, takes an intriguing and refreshing approach to character work by featuring very little of it. A few vague protagonists stand out from the ensemble, but the viewer learns very few names or personalities; true to the feeling of a real-life party (remember those?), we are given fleeting introductions to various characters, but the experience is more about the motion and emotion of the room than the journey of any one individual.
The central ‘story’ could be said to revolve around the wide-eyed, angelic Martha, played by newcomer Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, who crosses paths with various male suitors but only falls for the charming Franklyn, played by rising star Michael Ward. Ward is excellent as the reserved but nonetheless suave young man, but it is St. Aubyn who runs away with the entire show, stealing her every scene with an electric smile seemingly made for the screen. Their courtship is thrilling to watch, and imbued with a seamless naturalism that proves McQueen is not only a maestro of the miserable — he can clearly capture love and happiness with as much stylistic gravitas and ingenuity as he does the macabre and malevolent.
Lovers Rock is certainly this director’s cheeriest feature film by a mile. The mirth and playfulness of each segment, from the ladies who sing together while cooking to the impeccable dance sequences to the airy bike ride our central lovers take later in the night, display a warmth and levity not only atypical of McQueen but rather rare and exotic by now in 2020. If you need cheering up, as I am sure many of us do, this film might be an excellent choice. Just listening to Kadeem Ramsay’s delightful master of ceremonies, Samson, freestyle over the exquisite vinyl selections will almost certainly put a smile on any face.
Of course, no party is perfect, and in another true-to-life detail, some nefarious characters infiltrate the scene. Particularly noxious is the predatory Bammy, a disarmingly lascivious young tailor played by Daniel Francis-Swaby, who stalks around the dance floor and embodies a disturbing but rather uncreative antagonist. Characters like Bammy, and a handful of other openly rude, cruel, or violent Black figures in the film, inflect Lovers Rock with an oddly confrontational undercurrent, as if McQueen and Newland are pulling something of a bait-and-switch, inviting us to a watch a vibrant West Indian party, but meanwhile forcing us to acknowledge irresponsibility and vice in the community. Naturally, nothing and no-one is immune from corruption, but the persistent recurrence of nastiness feels intentional — whether the viewer finds this uncomfortable or understandable is ultimately up to them.
The atmosphere is still expertly rendered, and though the figures that populate this party represent some dubious implications, the aesthetics and soundscapes in which they move are breathtaking. One particularly memorable moment was apparently captured through pure serendipity; as one record finishes, the swaying dancers on the party floor continue to sing, and as McQueen explains, his crew just kept the cameras rolling. The ensuing acapella chorus is something to behold. However, it also begins a stretch of the film that feels superfluous — the multifaceted narrative of Lovers Rock may dutifully recreate the feeling of a party, but it also means the party itself is seen through so many lenses that the audience cannot fully appreciate the partygoers’ diegetic experience. When the film finally centralizes the dance floor, it is as if revisiting an afterthought, and in a film of only 68 minutes, it is notable that the last few scenes of the party drag the momentum down considerably.
All in all, Lovers Rock is a charming but fleeting debut for the Small Axe collection. Style and grace flow from every frame, but these visual and structural choices end up feeling rather repetitive. This is compelling evidence of the richness and romance of a certain West Indian lifestyle, with some commendable attention to detail, including a spotlighted maneuver in which an interested man might silently ask a woman to dance by lightly touching his fingers to her elbow and traveling to grasp her hand in his. For these textures, the film is exemplary, but one cannot help but feel most of its brief storylines are shortchanged by the end. In other words, the lovers are outbalanced by the rock, and the charm can only compensate so much for the film’s ephemerality. I look forward to viewing more of Small Axe, and perhaps revising and re-evaluating Lovers Rock as we witness more of McQueen’s full vision.