A monsoon of musical and sexual rapture bursts overhead in this film from director Steve McQueen, leaving condensation-sweat running down the walls and my cinematic pleasure going through the roof. It is co-scripted by McQueen with the writer and musician Courttia Newland, superbly designed by Helen Scott and gorgeously shot by Shabier Kirchner: a novella-sized feature that is part of an interrelating five-film series by McQueen called Small Axe for the BBC.
Lovers Rock is an amazing, real-time urban pastoral, set in Ladbroke Grove, west London, over a single evening at a house party in 1980. Young people of first- and second-generation West Indian background show up – handing over a 50p entry fee on the door, paying extra for food and drink from the kitchen, lining up on the stairs for the lavatory, hanging out on the sofas dragged out into the back garden for intimate interludes, and dancing for hours in a rammed front room to the sound system’s sternum-shuddering lover’s rock, soul and reggae.
This single night ignites a constellation of sexual sparks in its indoor cosmos, the traditional unspoken eddies of romantic disappointment, same-sex frissons, eruptions of family resentment, violent crises and an extraordinary, building musical euphoria. Lovers Rock is a cine-tab of MDMA, which through continuous immersion gradually, for me, ascended to something like an out-of-body experience. (It really needs to be seen on the big screen.) It’s a case of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning But Mostly Saturday Night.
With creative audacity and clarity, McQueen hits the movie equivalent of the impossibly sweet high note that Janet Kay finds at the end of her 1979 track Silly Games, which this film showcases irresistibly. Yet for all the hedonism, there are darker undercurrents, at one remove: a brush with racism and sexual assault. McQueen and Newland leave it up to us to register the tacit associations with the violence that was, historically, soon to follow: the riots, the (still unsolved) New Cross fire.
Amarah-Jae St Aubyn makes a great acting debut as Martha, nervously excited about going to the party with her friend Patty, played by Shaniqua Okwok. McQueen’s choreography shows how once there, they have to negotiate their position, judge their status, assess the possibilities, and deal with the gallantries offered by various men. Chief among these is Franklyn (Micheal Ward) and his friend Reggie (Francis Lovehall). It is Franklyn who looks to be the winner in the great game of love over the course of this night, which, in the mysterious zero-sum economy of fate, means that someone else has to be the loser, and that looks like being Patty, discontented with what’s happening for her.
Everything and nothing seems to be happening in this film. It is dominated by that one continuous eardrum-melting party scene, which in a more conventional type of drama might have been a sequence lasting five minutes or so at the beginning, and – who knows? – Lovers Rock might yet turn out to serve this function in the Small Axe pentalogy as a whole. The film just offers up a continuous, non-narrative stream of fascination and pleasure in the dance scenes; it is pure intravenous atmosphere, and you are put right in the middle of the dancing, in the sweat and the music and the indoor cigarette smoke. I especially loved it when the DJ put on Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting and all the dancers, as excited as little kids, assume martial-arts poses. (I can’t help remembering Enter the Dragon from this period with Bruce Lee’s unforgettable demand to his pupil: “We need emotional content!” This film has got just that: emotional content.)
And from this extended bacchanal a love story floats free: a pairing that is finally to take us, disorientatingly, outside the party to the Sunday-morning daylight and the wider world in which the characters have to show us their mastery of code-switching and whitespeak and the superhuman energy levels involved in going straight from the party to church.
McQueen’s compositional sense is a marvel; the movie’s period and location is evoked with masterly skill, and the romance is wonderful. What a cure for lockdown depression.
• Lovers Rock premieres at the New York film festival on 17 September, and will screen on BBC One later this year as part of Small Axe, a collection of five original films by Steve McQueen.