About midway through Steve McQueen’s compact “Lovers Rock” is a scene sure to be written about in nearly every review you’ll read. Let’s just call it the “Silly Games” scene, a long ten-minute slow dance that encapsulates the entire movie. A room full of young West Indian men and women intimately dance to Janet Kay’s reggae hit “Silly Games”. The camera takes a seductively observational role, slowly weaving between dancers, capturing the euphoria that keeps them singing and dancing well after the song ends. Clearly the characters and the filmmaker are lost in the freedom of the moment and the music. I wish I had been.
If the “Silly Games” scene works for you then I can almost guarantee “Lovers Rock” will too. The film, part two of McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology series for Amazon’s Prime, is all about observing and immersing. Its aim is to lose its audience in the sumptuous experience of the people we see. Not in a story or even the characters for that matter, but in the experience itself. It’s pretty audacious and at times intensely romantic. But if you aren’t fully in-tune with what McQueen is doing “Lovers Rock” may lose your attention despite only clocking in at a lean 68 minutes.
In its most basic form the story is about a group of friends who throw a house party. That’s it. But McQueen is a crafty filmmaker and he fills in the margins with meaningful subtext and a 1980 London setting that’s ripe for social commentary. Still the movie leaves most of that outside, instead focusing on the party as a place of freedom and release. It’s almost experimental in its disregard for plot or structure. Instead its focus is on simply moving from room to room, soaking in the atmosphere and swaying to the steady reggae beats from the DJ. At times McQueen’s camera creates such an intimacy that you can feel the heat on the dance floor and smell the pot of boiling curry goat in the kitchen.
The camera familiarizes us with several faces and checks in on them from time to time. A young woman named Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) is about as close as we come to a lead character. Early in the film we see her sneaking out of her parents’ house and meeting up with her bestie Patti (Shaniqua Okwok). The two hit the house party where Martha meets a charmer named Franklyn (Micheal Ward). Several other thinly-sketched but intriguing partygoers come in and out of the roaming camera’s view, revealing just enough personality to leave you wishing you knew them better.
But fleshing out characters isn’t what McQueen is after. It’s not that he isn’t interested in them. Quite the opposite. But he’s content with implying certain things about them, both individually and communally, and leaving the rest to us. It’s a welcome trust of a filmmaker with his audience, but considering how little we’re given it’s a case where filling in the blanks isn’t as satisfying as it should be.
“Lovers Rock” is an easy movie for me to admire but a tough one for me to love. Sometimes it’s sweet and sumptuous. Other times it plays like a music video. The intense closeups and slow pans, the dance floor vignettes, the almost sultry love for hemp and harmony – it all helps create a realistic setting that’s almost tangible to the senses. And you have to appreciate the film as an exploration of cultural identity during a very distinct time in London’s history. But it reached a point where the “experience” began to wear off and the lack of plot grew more and more noticeable. It ended up being like the “Silly Games” scene, bold and heartfelt but stretched well beyond its limits. “Lovers Rock” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS