Lovers Rock is loud, proud and joyous. It’s an invigorating, pound-the-walls-and-floorboards ode to its titular style of reggae. At just sixty-eight minutes, the second instalment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe five-parter may seem more episodic in length, but as the series’ name suggests, great things can come in small packages.
Moving forward in time from Mangrove, it’s the 1980s and Ladbroke Road is the place to be for the house party of the year. Martha is not going to miss this, shimmying down a drainpipe to escape her strict parents for the night. She’s played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, who is a delight to watch in what is remarkably her first (terrific) acting credit. As slender as Lovers Rock may be, McQueen uses his voice as a means to champion young talent to tremendous effect once more.
Decks and speakers are moved in, the couch goes out to the garden – covered in plastic for spillages – and food prep is well underway in the kitchen. You can smell the food, almost taste it. The crockpots bubble away and the chefs burst into song – an acapella version of Janet Kay’s Silly Games – as the energy, the excitement of the celebrations to come bounce along to music already playing in the living room-turned-dancefloor.
But as the speakers were picked up out of the van blurred figures sat on an electrical box looking on with intent and will later return to harass a young woman. Lovers Rock, and its venue, is by and large a haven of unadulterated good times for one night only, but McQueen doesn’t let us forget that outside this euphoric bubble there is the menace, prejudice and hardships of daily life for West London’s black community. Samson (Kadeem Ramsay, who has a lot of fun with his role), is resident DJ for the night and seems to thumb his nose at the police by using a siren as his transition between songs later on as the party really kicks into gear.
When a patrol cruises past, the spectre of troubles elsewhere peeks in through the front door, if only for a moment. McQueen teams up with director of photography Shabier Kirchner once more here, and as night falls the amber glow of wall lights adds another dimension to the warmth of his direction. Men take women by the hand, joining them on the dancefloor and it’s here that hands may move a little further south. Whether through lack of confidence or something more sinister some look on from the periphery, but for the most part it’s all fun and games and Kung Fu Fighting.
Another rendition of Silly Games allows for one of the most jaw-dropping vocal displays in any film you’ll see this year – perhaps ever – and an ensemble moment of pure, transcendent joy that occurs as if we were in the room at that very moment. There’s always a rotten apple or two, and not everyone who comes to the party will have the time of their lives, but Martha stands up for what’s right. And so, importantly, does Franklyn (Micheal Ward) – proving his worth to a young lady who has very much caught his eye.
An old gentleman, carrying a cross over his shoulder, appears once more after we’d earlier glimpsed him from a double-decker bus. We all have crosses to bear, and we know that they’re there to stay. But isn’t it good, every once in a while, to just put them aside and get down with your mates, if only for a night. The sun comes up and that means home time. Or maybe a Sunday morning service. It’s all over in the blink of an eye, but Lovers Rock is a party you won’t ever forget.
The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63