Steve McQueen’s ‘Lovers Rock’ Is Pure Musical Euphoria

At the end of Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock – a new film that both opens the New York Film Festival Thursday night and opens McQueen’s five part anthology coming to Amazon, Small Axe (a West Indian proverb meaning “together we are strong”) – he dedicates it to “lovers and rockers.” After watching Lovers Rock, it’s hard to think of a better dedication. At a running time of around 70 minutes, the movie is a celebration of music and love. It’s literally a party. It’s an all-encompassing experience that McQueen directs with the same urgency of his other, more inherently intense films – the urgency that has made him one of the best directors today (and one of my own personal favorites, if not just plain “favorite”).

As I write this, I have yet to see any of the other four installments of McQueen’s five-part series. From what I understand, the series will get more fraught in the later installments (the whole series is, according to McQueen, “stories being told to me by my parents, my aunt, and by experiencing racial discrimination myself growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s), but McQueen wanted to open up with something joyful. (Also, this first installment is the only one of the five based on fiction.) Part of me wanted to wait before writing about the series at all until I had seen the whole thing, but Lovers Rock works so well on its own as an experience I decided to just go ahead and write about it anyway.

The term “Lovers Rock” refers to the romantic reggae genre of music and is featured prominently in McQueen’s film. McQueen says he had the idea for this whole anthology just after his first film, Hunger. After watching, this makes a lot of sense because Lovers Rock feels like a throwback for McQueen – an intense focus on one subject. But instead of Michael Fassbender slowly starving himself to death in political protest, it’s a celebration of early 1980s London Black culture in its own form of political protest. At least in as much that this was a group that wasn’t welcome at local clubs, so they had to build their own house parties. And Lovers Rock basically acts as a time machine, being able to almost fully transport us to one of these parties.

Lovers Rock is more about the experience than the plot. At least, that’s to say, the plot is a little more enveloped in the sights and sounds than a traditional film. The story centers on Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) who, along with her pal Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), are headed to a party as this is interlaced with preparations for the party – which basically consists of watching giant speakers being installed. At the party, Martha meets Franklyn (Michael Ward) and a romance starts to blossom. But, again, this isn’t the traditional narrative. The plot is entirely driven by the party. It’s a movie where, almost spiritually, you just have to give yourself over to what you’re watching. You have to be at this party. If you resist (and it’s a hard movie to resist) – if you don’t want to be at this party – in that case this could be a frustrating movie to watch.

Including 2008’s Hunger, we’ve now only had a grand total of four feature-length films from McQueen – which include Shame, 12 Years a Slave, and 2018’s Widows. So it’s pretty remarkable, now, McQueen is basically giving us five brand new movies all at once. Honestly, this is such a gift to anyone who enjoys his films (me) and I cannot wait to see the rest of the anthology. But McQueen’s movies always tend to deal with some sort of pain, both existential and physical. So, it’s just nice to see McQueen make something so full of joy (even though there are danger and prejudices lurking just outside of the confines of the party), just for his own sake. Over the years he’s become my favorite director to interview because he’s such a lightning rod of ideas and opinions (and he expects anyone interviewer to be meeting him at his level, which is basically impossible, but I enjoy at least trying), that for his own well-being, I’m glad he let himself have this. Just to let loose end enjoy himself, at least momentarily. McQueen calls this his musical, which is accurate, because it’s a musical in the sense that, the way it’s presented, is only something McQueen could really pull off. And, my goodness, I’m glad he did.

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