Matt Taylor reviews Lovers Rock, the second film in Steve McQueen’s five-part anthology, Small Axe which shines a spotlight on Black history.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Steve McQueen has started something extremely special with his Small Axe series. Last week’s Mangrove was nothing short of a masterpiece, and the second instalment Lovers Rock continues in a similar vein. It’s a piece of filmmaking that’s in many ways extremely abstract and experimental, but absolutely overflowing with life – we’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Even so, the actors are certainly worth mentioning. Our titular lovers are played by the excellent pairing of Michael Ward (Blue Story) and Amarah-Jae St Aubyn (here making her screen debut). Their chemistry is one of the things that makes Lovers Rock so electric and alive. We know very little about the pair themselves, but we don’t need to; everything relevant is put before us, with all other, less important details forgotten. Ward and St Aubyn are a joy to watch together, and their interactions also serve as a rather sombre reminder of how rare it is to see a Black romance on primetime television.
It’s also worth noting that Lovers Rock doesn’t feel the need to engage in conversations about racism. There are hints towards it, of course, but that isn’t what the film is concerned with: it’s simply a work centred on Black joy. Despite misconceptions that stories about Black people must concern themselves with race – Lovers Rock is first and foremost a love story. That’s one of the messages that McQueen wants to tell his audience, and the way he decides to do it is nothing short of remarkable.
As such, it’s hard to accurately describe the effect that Lovers Rock has on its viewer. It’s difficult to figure out quite what it’s done to you until it’s over – by which time you’ll likely be wanting to get out to a party yourself. It’s a work with a real yearning for people and togetherness – these things, McQueen tells us, are among the most important on Earth, because they are what make us human.
There are few things like standing in a crowd and belting out a song together. It’s a feeling of community that 2020 has sadly made damn near impossible – but if anything in history has recreated it, it’s Lovers Rock. That’s something that’s down to a variety of factors, most notable of which are McQueen’s direction, Shabier Kirchner’s electrifying cinematography, and Helen Scott’s beautiful set design. These three elements combine to create a whirlwind rush of adrenaline once we’re at the party; you can practically feel the heat from the dancefloor and smell the cigarette smoke from the hallway. Such care and attention are taken that it feels as though we ourselves are able to tear it up on the dancefloor and sing our hearts out.
This is without a doubt a film that will make its audience miss partying – but it’s also much more than that. For one, it’s a joyous celebration of Black culture; not only does it simply tell Black stories (as mentioned above), but it puts Black culture front and centre for all to see and enjoy. This is a culture that many Brits have grown up with, but due to the nearly all-white nature of television and film has barely been seen outside of those circles: but Lovers Rock changes that. This culture, this music, these people are important – and it’s high time we started listening to their stories.
For another, it ultimately works more akin to poetry than the actual film. Though it is undoubtedly many things, Lovers Rock is primarily an ode to, as McQueen puts it himself, ‘the lovers and rockers.’ It’s a love letter to all that’s good in the world and encourages its viewers to look beyond themselves – beyond these temporal bodies into our very essence. Because once we see beyond ourselves, we can find what matters to us: what makes us human. For McQueen, it’s music that binds us together; the standout scene is one of the crowd belting out Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ for all they’re worth for exactly that reason.
By the time it’s over, you probably won’t know what just happened to you – but that’s the magic of Lovers Rock. A beautiful ode to love, music, and community all at once, it’s a truly remarkable piece of filmmaking. It’s like nothing else we’ve seen this year, and surely nothing else we’ll see for years to come.
Lovers Rock and the other films that are part of the Small Axe series are available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.
Matt Taylor is an avid contributor at Wales Arts Review.