Lovers Rock: Cadence and Harmony, by David Bax
Unfolding pretty much entirely in unsubtitled Patois, it’s often difficult for those not familiar with the language to follow precisely what’s being said in Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock. But that’s not the same as not being able to follow what’s happening. McQueen is communicating not in a spoken language but in the cinematic one, forging a path of bright light across time and culture that links all of the souls that love joy and dance.
Lovers Rock immediately enters the canon of the great all-in-one-night movies like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. We see a house being set up for a party; a couch is moved into the backyard, a makeshift bar is thrown up with a sign offering £1 Red Stripes, the speakers are wired. People show up, the party happens, we get a glimpse of the next morning and then the credits roll.
Among the first people we meet are the ones setting up the sound system, members of the same subculture detailed in Franco Rosso’s terrific 1980 Babylon (which does subtitle the Patois). Lovers Rock doesn’t specify its place in time but fashions suggest it’s around the same year as that film. These young men won’t be among our key players in terms of storyline but their contributions behind the turntable are indispensable, providing the beats and rhythms that flow through the movie’s veins.
Even at only 70 minutes, Lovers Rock makes room for lengthy sequences of nothing but music and dance. These are, truthfully, more important than the narratives we get about the meet-cute between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward) or the girl celebrating her seventeenth birthday (Ellis George). McQueen shows us how crucial the music is by showing us the characters singing along to the songs, making clear that the actors aren’t just dancing to generic music pumped into the set–or to no music at all–that was then replaced in post, as so often happens in movie party scenes. In one transcendent moment, in fact, he drops out the music altogether and lets us listen to the entire party singing with only the sounds of their shuffling feet for accompaniment.
Lovers Rock is the second film to be released in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology of movies about the Black experience in Britain. If you think of the series as a TV show–which I don’t but let’s just go along with this thought exercise–Lovers Rock is like a bottle episode, confined to a single location. Many such episodes use the limitations to experiment with the format, like Firefly‘s nonlinear “Out of Gas” or Seinfeld‘s real-time “The Chinese Restaurant.” That’s what Lovers Rock feels like, a chapter outside of continuity. It’s an argument in favor of more films adopting the same approach, trusting their audience to assume a baseline of familiarity and then just going off on their own brief journey.
Parties, both in real life and in movies, are often treated as either a backdrop or a jumping off point to some other goal like socializing or inebriation or just plain rowdiness. In its best moments, Lovers Rock removes those ancillary concerns and distills partying down to its essence, its own sublime language of elation, togetherness and freedom.