The Movie Waffler BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - LOVERS ROCK | The Movie Waffler

Sponsor

BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - LOVERS ROCK

lovers rock review
In late '70s London, two young people are drawn together over the course of a house party.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Starring: Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, Francis Lovehall, Shaniqua Okwok, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Kadeem Ramsay


Curried meat bubbles furiously in giant pots. A sofa is moved into a bedroom to make way for a makeshift dancefloor. A primitive system for switching between two record turntables is rigged up in fetishistic cabling porn fashion. And then the needle drops and the party begins.

Thus Steve McQueen sets the scene for Lovers Rock, one of five entries in his made for BBC anthology 'Small Axe'. All five movies tell stories of the West Indian diaspora in London between the 1960s and '80s, but where the others are focussed on hardship, Lovers Rock is centred on joy, on food, on dance, on music, on sex, on shared euphoria, on all the things currently forbidden in the lockdown age.

lovers rock review

The question will be raised as to whether McQueen's five films fall under TV or cinema. If we're going to be reductive, I think of TV as a medium of words and ideas, and cinema as one of images and feelings. Using those parameters, Lovers Rock is categorically a work of cinema, perhaps the most cinematic British TV movie since Alan Clarke's Elephant.


McQueen's goal here is to replicate an experience, that of attending what were known as "Blues Parties", raucous get togethers thrown by the UK's West Indian community in the years before American pop culture began to distance Black British youth from the culture of their ancestral islands. The soundtrack is a mix of reggae - particularly the soulful, romantic variation from which McQueen's film takes its title - and the disco hits of the era, the tunes ranging from the sublimely soulful (Janet Kay's 'Silly Games') to the ridiculously fun (Carl Douglas's 'Kung Fu Fighting'). It's the late '70s, so the concept of modern DJing as we know it, with flawlessly mixed sets, hasn't made its way to Britain just yet. The DJ - who also doubles as a hype man, vocally encouraging the crowd - is by no means a pro, interrupting the flow in awkward fashion at times (pulling a Chic record off the turntable halfway through ought to be a jailable offence), but he knows his crowd.

lovers rock review

Lovers Rock is one of those rare movies that understands DJing, that gets that a DJ is essentially a nerd whose job is to help cool people get laid. There's an insightful moment in which a troubled young man gatecrashes the party and begins to dance on his own, consumed by the music. The DJ and his crew break out in smiles, as for them it's the highlight of their night. They've found that one person who is more interested in dancing than fucking. They'll tailor the night around him. He is patient zero, and the plan is for him to infect the crowd. This is the essence of DJing, finding that diamond in a crowd of coal, that one person who appreciates what you're doing, and manipulating them through music to spread their joy to the rest of the dancefloor, to let the others know that the canoodling can wait, that for the next few hours there's dancing to be done.


There is much canoodling here too, as at its throbbing heart Lovers Rock (note the absence of the possessive apostrophe) is a love story of two people making a connection among a crowd. They would be Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn), who has sneaked out the window of her home clad in a hand-sewn gown, and the handsome Franklyn (Micheal Ward). The brilliance of McQueen's filmmaking is that he never tells us Martha and Franklyn are falling for one another. He allows us to sense it. Lovers Rock is one of the most sensual movies of recent years. You can almost smell the mix of hash smoke, sweat and cheap aftershave, taste the curry pouring over the rim of pots in the kitchen, feel the bodies grinding close. For most of the movie we're in the middle of the dancefloor, an invitee intruding on intimacy.

lovers rock review

Like many house parties, there's trouble lurking on the fringes, and as much fun is being had, we're reminded that this was an era lacking sensitivity, particularly towards women. While some of the men, like Franklyn, are dashing, others are downright menacing, and more than one young woman will be in tears by the end of the night. Some younger viewers may find one particular incident difficult to process, given its throwaway nature and lack of repercussions, but this is an accurate reflection of how such things played out not so long ago.

Like Gaspar Noe's Climax, Lovers Rock is a very modern take on the best type of musical, one built around dance. McQueen doesn't have the crew of professional dancers Noe was blessed with, but he does have a cast of charismatic newcomers that make you feel like you've seen them on screen several times before. Watching Lovers Rock, you get the sense that like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Dazed and Confused, this is one of those movies where every fresh face goes on to stardom to some degree. As with the young actors portraying them, it's unclear what the future holds for Martha and Franklyn, but if Lovers Rock is as good as it gets, it's good enough.

Lovers Rock plays at the BFI Southbank on October 18th as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020.

2020 movie reviews