Lovers Rock is so good that it hurts. In this pandemic year, we’ve been beset with reminders of how life used to be — baseball games with nobody in the stands, new TV shows made before COVID in which the characters aren’t wearing masks and don’t have to worry about standing six feet apart — but the latest in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology synthesizes much of what I’ve been missing, all in a compact 68-minute running time. The story of a terrific party — terrific because of how vibrant and ordinary it is — Lovers Rock unwittingly memorializes the social functions we used to take for granted. To be sure, there’s heartache and racial strife going on in the film — the ugliness of the real world doesn’t take a day off, even when everyone’s dancing the night away. But for a filmmaker who normally examines humanity’s worst tendencies, McQueen here hits on the joy of being alive. Even more impressive, he achieves that feat while making it seem like no big deal.
Unlike the previous installment, Mangrove, Lovers Rock isn’t based on a true story — rather, it’s inspired by a specific period of time and musical moment. It’s 1980 in London, and a group of Black men and women are gathering for a house party. There’s gonna be a DJ playing lovers rock, a popular strain of 1970s reggae that emphasized the music’s romantic elements. You can practically smell the sweet scent of pot in the air as people congregate in the tight, sweaty space. Some of the revelers are sneaking out on their parents, including Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), who escapes through her bedroom window to meet up with her buddy Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). They just want to dance and have a good time, but soon Martha catches the eye of a stranger, Franklyn (Micheal Ward), and an attraction sparks. Eventually, Patty decides to ditch the party, but Martha stays. She has a good feeling about this guy.
Thanks to its short running time, Lovers Rock doesn’t have to worry so much about plot. McQueen’s film, which comes to Amazon Prime Video on Friday, is more about a sense of place, and I can’t imagine anyone not falling in love with Lovers Rock’s seductive milieu. I can’t say I’m well-versed in lovers rock — or reggae in general — but you don’t need to know the music to follow the tune. In fact, it’s a testament to the film that I adored it despite not being that familiar with the songs. (This isn’t one of those movies that lazily throws a bunch of popular hits on the soundtrack in order to get an easy reaction from viewers.) Previous McQueen films, like 12 Years a Slave and Widows, were more intellectual and chilly, casting a cold eye at an indifferent universe. Lovers Rock isn’t exactly a musical romp, but the director’s clinical approach reaps unlikely but rich rewards. He seems to be examining the very building blocks of a good time, showing how each component adds up to a thrilling whole. And since we’re all in short supply of good times these days, Lovers Rock is like a slow tease of escalating pleasure you don’t want to end — even though you know, like with any party, that it will.
The Small Axe films are all centered around the experiences of West Indians living in London from between the 1960s and 1980s, exploring how everyday racism impacts the characters. Although set nearly 50 years ago, Mangrove felt like a bulletin from the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. By comparison, Lovers Rock may seem a little more tangentially about racism, but McQueen simply attacks the topic in a different way in this installment, showing how prejudice lingers in the margins, informing the action without it being quite so overt. Tellingly, everyone at the party is Black, but when we venture into the outside world, it’s a realm dominated by white faces. (And, sometimes, they can be intimidating: As Patty leaves the party in the early-morning hours, she encounters four tough-looking white guys hanging out on the street. Without a word, she simply turns around and walks in the opposite direction.) The party is euphoric, but it’s also a safe haven. It’s a place where the characters can feel free.
That realization adds poignancy to what could otherwise just be a real fun hangout movie. The hookups feel a little more intense, and the dancing comes across as more of a release. The press notes inform me that Black Londoners were shunned by white nightclubs at the time, which helps suggest the urgency and emotion on these partiers’ faces. Lovers Rock doesn’t feature elaborately choreographed dance moves, but there is a sensuous sweep to the scenes as the camera glides around the room, focusing on specific body parts and the general sway of human beings as they respond to the music. You feel like you’re floating in a sacred arena, and although we don’t learn much about Martha or the other revelers, that’s not a problem. All that matters is that we’re here together, in this room, at this time. Tomorrow can wait until tomorrow.
It’s hard to imagine that McQueen could have known how hard Lovers Rock would hit in the midst of a pandemic. Every throwaway detail — the dude that hits on you in line for the bathroom, the smoke you bum off some guy you’re standing next to — now feels beamed in from the lives we once lived and may never get back. What Lovers Rock communicates superbly is that what makes a party special is all the random nobodies you encounter there — folks you may never see again but, hey, for one night, they might be your best friend. It’s not unlike seeing a movie in a theater in the dark surrounded by strangers: Part of you is opening yourself up to a communal experience that will be shared by people you don’t know. And yet you’re all bonded by the experience — it’s all of yours. That’s never truer in Lovers Rock than during an extraordinary sequence in which everybody on the dance floor spontaneously decides they don’t want Janet Kay’s swooning, lovely “Silly Games” to end. So, after it’s over, they all just sing it a cappella, as if they can will the feeling of the song to last forever. It’s the kind of unexpectedly perfect moment that can happen at a great party. It can happen in a great film, too.
Eventually, night turns to morning, and our ostensible main characters, Martha and Franklyn, go off together, grabbing a bike and riding out into a new day and a London that may not be entirely hospitable to them. What comes next is beyond Lovers Rock’s purview. The film feels like a dream, but it’s rooted in real life and real pain, and the real understanding that special evenings are worth treasuring. The characters in this movie, if they’re still alive, would be in their late 50s now, hunkered down in quarantine like the rest of us. Lovers rock’s popularity has waned, and the house that held the party may have been razed by this point. But for one night, it was the whole world. Lovers Rock reminds us to savor the dance while we have it.