With his series Small Axe, Steve McQueen builds an epic anthology of five films depicting London’s West Indian community from the 1960s to the 1980s. Lovers Rock, the first installment to be released, paints a thriving picture of the city’s reggae scene during that era. The film is primarily set during a single night in 1980, at a party that draws lovers and rockers alike into a crammed London townhouse transformed into a club. McQueen directs the action in a way that allows the audience to feel like they’re attending this party, experiencing the joy of the characters and hovering in the middle of every interaction. This immersive approach brings a close-knit community to life and makes for an incredibly rewarding viewing experience.
Lovers Rock is the only film of the Small Axe anthology series that is not based on a true story, but McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland create realistic characters that flourish in every scene. In the middle of the house party, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and (Micheal Ward) grow from strangers to budding lovers to the tune of a reggae soundtrack. Their love story is the connecting thread from scene to scene, but the focus of the movie is creating the meandering feeling of attending this party yourself.
The wandering eye of the camera establishes early on that this is a film revolving around atmosphere and feeling as much as the events that transpire over this single night. Wide shots are very rare throughout Lovers Rock and so we hardly ever see everything the scene has to offer in one single frame. Instead, McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner (Skate Kitchen) hone in on the details that build a beautiful tableau on film. Faces in joyous expression, feet as they dance on the hardwood floor, and hands wandering on strangers’ bodies create a clearer picture of this party than any wide-angle could. These are details that we’d notice if we were in the room, and through these details, we experience the scene organically.
Most of Lovers Rock takes place inside a living room transformed into a club dance floor. The camera is situated in the center of the room, surrounded by dancers in constant motion. This creates a claustrophobic feeling, but it’s one that some people will recognize and miss from past parties. There’s so much to see, and the camera pans and spins and glides around the room to take in everything. It may feel trite to say that the camera dances with the party-goers, but that doesn’t make it any less true as it contributes to the rhythmic aura and movement of the film.
The rhythm of the camera matches the tone of each scene as well, creating a cohesive style while adapting to whatever is the vibe of each scene. After a jarring assault that happens later in the film, for instance, there is a noticeable change in the camera’s movement. Also, the music is no longer slow and sensual, but bombastic and powerful. Jumps, shaking pans, and fast spins create overwhelming anxiety that matches what we hear and what we see. There is a vast world within this music scene and McQueen expertly portrays every aspect of it.
Shots are close to people’s faces and bodies, and even as the camera moves around the room it takes the time to focus on each person that enters the frame and the dance floor. It’s obvious that the people are what make this community so alive. The music would be nothing without the way they move their bodies or the energy they bring to the room. The way they’re framed brings the atmosphere life for the audience in a uniquely cinematic way.
Along with creating the feeling of being inside the party, the film’s attention to each member of the community and what they bring to it contributes to McQueen’s goal for this anthology. Lovers Rock doesn’t focus on the societal events that shape this community as much as other Small Axe film. However, it does paint a beautiful picture of the lives they lead outside of the painful experiences society makes them endure. Lovers Rock shows this Black community’s joy and happiness in a palpable way that makes for an immersive and exciting film that can stand alone from the anthology.
You can rent Lovers Rock as part of the 2020 New York Film Festival via Film at Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema.