The 58th New York Film Festival officially begins with Steve McQueen looking back on a fictional house party in 1980. If Lovers Rock sounds like a left turn for the filmmaker, it both is and isn’t. The subject matter may be lighter and more optimistic than he’s known for, but McQueen’s stark observations and dedication to following characters is on full display. The festival programmers clearly saw something special in this movie, pulling it from McQueen’s Small Axe anthology and not just placing it in the fest, but elevating it to the Opening Night Selection. Now having seen it, it’s clear why they did so.
Lovers Rock is, perhaps surprisingly, a hangout movie, not too dissimilar from the style and world that Richard Linklater has returned to time and again over his career. The tone is different, but this flick is simply an evening spend with a group of people eager to let loose and have a good time. Filled with good music and tender observations about courtship, it’s further reaching than its small scale and short running time would lead you to initially believe.
As a special note, Lovers Rock is just one of five parts in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series. NYFF 2020 includes two other installments in Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, though this one got tapped for the special treatment. This review only talks about Lovers Rock, but keep in mind that it’s meant to overall be consumed as part of something larger. This will also be the case when Mangrove and Red, White and Blue get reviewed in the days to come.
Dropping us directly into the lives of Black Londoners in 1980, specifically within the West Indian community, we watch as various young men and women get ready for a big house party. Unable to go safely (or in many cases, at all) to the white nightclubs throughout the city, homes became a destination for dancing, food, music, and romance. While Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) is as close as things get to a protagonist, we come to meet plenty of other characters, all of whom want to have a good time.
As the party goes on, the camera floats around, taking it all in. Martha and her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) talk with Franklyn (Micheal Ward) and Reggie (Francis Lovehall), with Martha and Franklyn developing a bond throughout the evening. While there are some bad eggs at the party, it’s clear that these events serve as a safe haven, with hatred, racism, and even violence looming just outside.
Steve McQueen clearly has a special connection to the sorts of parties that he, as well as the generation before him, attended during their youthful days. Whether it’s the organized chaos of the party being set up, watching Martha get ready to leave, or the actual dancing that goes on, it all feels real. The two extended dance sequences are a joy, with one of the song selections being a surprise, yet also perfect for the time period. When it comes to the little details, it’s clear that McQueen has nailed it. Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner captures it all with a largely fly on the wall approach, though at times the camera smartly zooms in, either on a pair of hands, or just something else that would capture one’s eye. It’s the sort of direction you expect from McQueen, while the screenplay he penned with Courttia Newland offers up something a bit new.
Watching this cast is a pleasure. Everyone is so in tune with the music and the mood that McQueen is putting out there, it washes over you with ease. Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Francis Lovehall, Shaniqua Okwok, and Micheal Ward form such a well-rounded ensemble, no one stands out, but they all feel like completely realistic parts of a community. They’re hardly the only ones of note here, but McQueen keeps the camera moving so much, you’re always paying attention to someone new.
Undeniably small, Lovers Rock is still able to pack a punch. At the same time, the hints of racism looming in the corners aren’t as effective, though one has to assume they resonate more once the other installments in the anthology are seen. Likewise, the party and the dancing is more successful than the smaller romance brewing between St. Aubyn and Ward. These are small quibbles that just knock it down a peg, as this is still a largely delightful effort from McQueen.
Kicking off NYFF, Lovers Rock is a reminder that, no matter how different a community may seem, the desires, needs, and wants of the youth are likely the same. McQueen is going to show people being torn apart by hatred and racism in his subsequent Small Axe installments, so this episode starts it all by showing how music bonds a society. It’s an excellent reminder, especially when current times can seem as divided as these historical ones.