'Lovers Rock' Review: The Exuberant First Film In Steve McQueen's 'Small Axe' Anthology Gets You In The Mood [NYFF 2020]

Lovers Rock comes in waves — waves of joy, waves of sensuality, waves of dread, waves of wild, shuddering fervor that only begins to wane once the dim light of morning starts to shine through. Taking place entirely over the course of one night, this first film in Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology, which charts the lives and London's West Indian community between 1968 and 1985, is a swooning mood piece that seduces and disarms you until you're happy to let it lap over you, floating in the warm exuberance of a one-night reggae house party.

Set in 1980, Lovers Rock takes place largely over one night at a house party, where the young and fancy-free of the London West Indian community mingle over goat curry, beers, and the dulcet tones of romantic reggae songs. The parties were born out of necessity when Black Londoners were not welcome at white nightclubs, spawning the "Blues Party" culture in parties (with a small admission fee) held out of their cramped houses.

McQueen and co-screenwriter Courttia Newland craft a rich tapestry of lives who flirt and fight with each other over the course of the night, from the jealous birthday girl Cynthia (Ellis George) to the naive Martha (newcomer Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and the brooding stranger Franklyn (Micheal Ward) with whom Martha feels the first sparks of attraction. The film can be charted through their first flirtations, the first pangs of betrayal after Martha's friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) leaves the party early, irritated at Martha's distracted attentions, leading into the slow, sensual dance they do around each other as the both of them fall hard.

Though Martha and Franklyn provide the central thread, the film is less about them than it is about the overall night. The film ebbs and flows, as if dancing in rhythm to the reggae music that provides the swooning soundtrack to the film, with the characters losing themselves to the visceral thrill of rhythm, swaying their hips and singing along at the top of their lungs. Shabier Kirchner's camera is an active participant, flitting about the house as if dancing along to the up-tempo music as well, then slowing down to a snail's pace and lingering on the hands and faces of the partygoers when the DJ's put on a slow song. Every now and then, the film takes a break from the ever-moving bodies to hang out on the couch in the backyard outside, as other partygoers smoke and drink on a ratty couch by a fire pit.

We wander through the house, touching base with a few of the characters, before inevitably losing ourselves again on the dance floor, the music ratcheting up to one rapturous centerpiece: a house-wide singalong of Janet Kay's 1979 single "Silly Games." Everything stops for a moment here, suspended in the euphoric joy of this shared experience, the radiant beaming expressions of the singers and dancers, as they sway to their own off-key singing. It's a triumphant, glorious moment that transcends the Wong Kar-wai-inspired sensuality that the rest of the film is embedded in.

There are other highs, the film at one point climaxing into a feverish, drug-fueled dance sequence that feels right out of a Gaspar Noé film. And several more lows, as an attempted sexual assault casts a wave of dread over the entire film. But never once does Lovers Rock crash from its exhilarating crests. It flows from its dreamlike state into one of a liminal space just before reality sets in, as its core lovers, Martha and Franklyn, move from the warm red hues of the party to the cold blues of the early morning, sharing a bike ride to the nearby auto repair shop that Franklyn works at. They share a final toast and dance to the car radio before being forced to part ways, exchanging their first kiss in the dim light of day as the city of London begins to wake up around them.

Clocking in at a little over an hour, Lovers Rock is naturally a little lean, limited by its one-night premise and its brief sojourn into these characters' lives. But it's a tone poem that feels at once a love letter to the style of reggae music which it's named after, and to the people who danced and fell in love to that music in '80s London. "For all lovers and rockers" is the dedication at the end of Lovers Rock, and it feels like the perfect postscript.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10