The film opens during the day, hours before the aforementioned party begins, but its story is already in motion. It takes us on a tour of a two-story house shared by a group of young twenty-somethings while their preparations are underway, as they create a welcoming space as an alternative to London nightclubs where they may not be welcome. Furniture is relocated to make room for a dance floor. Characters jab winkingly at one another, and curry goat is prepared by the pot-full; its aroma practically radiates off the screen.
While the rest of the film is filled with music, these initial scenes unfold either without it or with songs playing as a low rumble deep in the background. Instead, the soundtrack is littered with intimate details, like the shuffling of battered vinyl sleeves, or wires and speakers being meticulously assembled. The camera rarely stops to focus on any one thing or person, but as each element whizzes by, it feels like an embedded fixture of this household, as if McQueen — a Grenadian and Trinidadian West Londoner born in 1969 — were reaching into the recesses of his adolescent memory.
Night falls soon after, and we’re introduced to our main character, the mischievous Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, making her screen debut), as she escapes from her bedroom window. Martha’s family expects her up bright & early for Church the next morning, but those plans are no match for her desire for a night out with her best friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). The scenery is peppered with crucifixes, like subtle reminders of the familial commitments she’s choosing to put off. While at the party, she meets an alluring stranger, Franklyn (Micheal Ward), with whom she exchanges verbal spars before letting her guard down. A multitude of characters weaves in and out of each other’s eyelines, while the makeshift DJ plays reggae and disco hits from the ’70s and ’80s: Barry Briggs, Sister Sledge, even Augustus Pablo.
The film’s title sounds, at first, like a reference to some secret place where young romantics hide away from intrusive eyes — the kind of place Martha might need to escape to since even attending a party means creating a ruse for her family. Although, to those familiar with the cultural zeitgeist at the film’s core, it’s a clear reference to the romantic subgenre of reggae that populates the film’s soundscape. That said, in a film about young lovers being drawn into each other’s orbit through the power of music, Lovers Rock can’t help but feel like a complete sentence; a statement of truth, and a state of being which the filmmakers intend to paint in brush strokes both broad and specific.
Romantic and sexual tension fills the air, as beautiful strangers undress each other with their eyes from across the room. But there’s a secondary tension too, a specific cultural tension which McQueen & co. weave into the film’s fabric with expert subtlety. The film may present its Afro-Caribbean characters as a collective hoping to escape the gaze of white supremacy — white characters appear but a few times, in the distance and as aggressive intrusions — but Lovers Rock doesn’t flatten the West Indian diaspora into a monolith.
The film is too short (and too propulsive) to stop and ponder its politics in words, but its use of language and accents tells its own story. In key moments, Martha, an outsider to this household, draws the ire of its host Cynthia (Ellis George). What seems to separate them (an element separating several other characters as well) is the way they speak: Martha code-switches with ease between her seemingly “native” English accent and her family’s Caribbean patois, though for Cynthia and other characters in the household, the latter is their native tongue. It’s a different accent, but it’s functionally its own dialect too — when I asked McQueen about it at the film’s NYFF press conference, he said he treated it as its own language when writing the film (lead actors Ward and St. Aubyn agreed with that summation).
Without the need for exploring logistics, this mere difference in verbal approach paints an entire backdrop. It speaks to the varying experiences of these characters; some were British-born, or immigrated while they were young enough to adopt the cadence of their new country; others immigrated later (for them, the West Indies is still the first place they called home), but they all traverse a thin line between two different cultures. The standard English accent is more rigid, more uptight, though the characters’ West Indian accents have a musicality to them that fits the film’s premise; switching from one dialect to the next feels like immersing oneself in a space of freedom, where white cultural expectations of what’s “proper” is no longer a concern.
These are lived experiences that, even within a collective diaspora, can lead to in-group, out-group tendencies (they rear their head once more even in McQueen’s Mangrove, a courtroom drama), but they are not the central story of Lovers Rock. They are merely what grounds the story in the real and the tangible, for the story itself is ethereal. These interpersonal tensions are necessary window-dressing to a film largely comprising scenes of song and dance. The film is a dream of sorts, and like any dream, the intrusion of real-world anxieties is a given. The songs, for instance, don’t transition smoothly into one another. Instead, the DJ speaks to the crowd while a “Selector” lines up the next record and the tracks are broken up by recorded sounds of police sirens, evoking the harsh reality outside the walls of this safe-haven. It’s a dream that feels occasionally disturbed, but before long, it draws both the partygoers and the audience back into its trance for extended periods, allowing us to reorient ourselves before submitting to its embrace.
McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner create a warm, dimly-lit dance floor which they navigate with panache. Wide lenses might seem like the instinctive choice, given how much space they capture at once without the need to really readjust focus as the camera moves. But the lenses employed here are long and voyeuristic, flattening space and creating shallow-focus portraits of each individual as the camera zips between a sea of arms and legs (and, as the night wears on, as the camera lingers on couples slow-dancing closely, the sweat practically shimmering off their skin).
Tensions often arise during the film, be they cultural, familial, or stemming from other jealousies, but they’re soon diffused through dance. The characters become swept up in a rhythmic ecstasy, and we, the viewers, are allowed to bask in the warm glow of what feels like a deeply spiritual celebration.
As the characters slip into a carefree trance — far away from the discomforts we’ve seen right outside their door — the film itself becomes entrancing too. An extended sequence set to Janet Kay’s 1979 single “Silly Games” might just be the single most moving and exciting scene of the year, as the party guests not only get lost in the music but become one with it, even as it fades out and they continue the song on their own terms for several minutes, as if it were some ritualistic chant. As if that weren’t enough, the ritual is soon turned up to eleven with the pulsating riddim of “Kunta Kinte Dub” by The Revolutionaries, as the men at the party cut loose. The scene begins with stomping and writhing and ends with raised fists and slogans from an impassioned crowd as if the dance floor has undergone metamorphosis through shared energy and transformed into a Black Power rally.
If Gaspar Noé’s Climax from 2018 — programmed at this year’s NYFF by filmmaker John Waters — is a depiction of Hell through dance, then McQueen’s Lovers Rock feels like dancing in Paradise.
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