Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe: Lovers Rock’ Moves To a Feverish Beat That Brims With Romantic Soul

Lovers Rock,” the second entry in director Steve McQueen’s five-part film series “Small Axe,” has the sensuous energy of a great party and the simple strength of a short story. It continues McQueen’s exploration of London’s West Indian community, this time emphasizing a bygone era of late night house gatherings set to the sounds that could inspire joy or desire. In 1980s London, much of the Black community still found itself discriminated to such a degree that they were still barred from or discriminated at many nightclubs, so as an act of defiance underground parties became the norm. And like all parties, mini dramas play out amid the drinks and dancing. 

McQueen opens this party with Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) sneaking out of her house to meet with friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). Decked in trench coats hiding their hastily slapped-together fine wear for the evening, the two besties make their way to a house party in West London. It’s a cramped but exhilarating event. Once you get past the big doorman, Jabba (Marcus Fraser), inside DJs have set up speakers and are playing while everyone grooves, smokes out and chats. With the swirl of Caribbean accents in the air, Martha and Patty also begin to maneuver the standoff of the sexes that goes on at parties. Some of the guys who make an effort are upfront jerks, but then you get someone like Franklyn (Micheal Ward), who has confidence but also manners and tact.  The fact that Martha can attract the nice guy sparks some envy in Patty. As the night progresses we will also meet other personalities like Cynthia (Ellis George), the birthday girl in the stunning red dress desperate for adoration, and Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby), who from a distance looks stylish and suave, but up close proves to be dangerous. 

At only 68 minutes, “Lovers Rock” is an electric example of how a director like McQueen can tell a striking, compact story. It’s a masterful display of technique and narrative. The party Martha attends is its own little world, filmed in sensuous, baroque lighting by Shabier Kirchner, yet so much happens in it. The editing develops an incredible rhythm between the music, the movement of bodies and the goings-on between individuals. Martha and Franklyn get to know each other through small and simple ways. He likes her, she might like him, but they have to test it out through behaviors. You can tell a lot about a person in the way they dance with you, because it involves such a delicate game of touching and moving. For example when Bammy starts dancing with Cynthia, we can tell he’s not into getting to know her (or the idea of consent). At parties we can draw quick judgements based on dress or dance skills. McQueen’s sharp eye captures all of this in a dreamlike flow. 

While “Lovers Rock” is the music-based entry in “Small Axe,” it still holds in its margins and subtext important observations about race in ‘80s London. The first entry, “Mangrove,” dealt with police brutality and injustice, in “Lovers Rock” racism is a subtle but no less threatening presence. When Patty has had enough and leaves the party, Martha tries to find her down the street but is suddenly confronted by a group of ominous white men who only back off when Jabba, a Rasta you would never want to mess with, appears. Later Franklyn’s white boss at an auto shop will pretend to be friendly while hiding racist condescension in his dialogue. And through some of the music being blasted in this party, a radical spirit has a way of manifesting, like when partygoers raise fists to The Revolutionaries’ “Kunta Kinte Dub.”

“Lovers Rock” could almost be considered one of the year’s best musicals. Songs and rhythms are what drive every moment of this story. The DJ will stop the record and let the crowd sing acapella. If there is a main theme to the film it is “Silly Games” by Janet Kay, sung by the party hosts at the beginning while preparing the food, and then later by the entire dancing crowd, who turn it into an enveloping cadence. When the party reaches a crescendo and everyone goes wild the camerawork, dancing and facial expressions have such power and electrifying energy, that it is altogether a magnificent cinematic expression of human movement. It is one of the most visceral pieces of film McQueen has yet made. Yes, it’s a period film set 40 years in the past, but it is so alive you feel you’ve travelled into it.

McQueen closes “Lovers Rock” with a more quiet eloquence. This is a romance and the final shot is one of the year’s simplest, yet most touching renditions of what it feels like to wake up the next morning with the smile of someone who has experienced genuine attraction with someone else. As a work of film McQueen packs more meaning and depth into 68 minutes of interaction than some directors do in 4-hour opuses with canons, battle sequences or superheroes. One of our best modern filmmakers has thrown a party not to miss and there is no hangover.

Small Axe: Lovers Rock” begins streaming Nov. 27 with new films in the series premiering Fridays on Amazon Prime Video.