While Mangrove kicked off Small Axe – Steve McQueen’s five-part series of films centred on London’s West Indian community – with a powerful look at Black people’s struggle for civil justice and basic human rights, Lovers Rock shifts gear entirely. It acts as a celebration of Black music and culture, transporting us to a 1980s house party fuelled by, love, drugs and Red Stripe, complete with dance moves that would make Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey blush. It can’t match Mangrove’s urgency (and nor is it attempting to), but it’s certainly got more rhythm.
For the young Black men and women who descend on the party, it’s a place of freedom, a chance for them to express themselves without the need to put on a front and to embrace their heritage. There’s an undercurrent of racial tension that flows through the film, rearing its head on occasion as part of the tapestry of the character’s lives, reminders of what they have to face day to day. But it’s by no means the focus, at least not as overtly as it was in Mangrove; instead, Lovers Rock delivers escapism for its characters in the form of music.
The dancefloor quickly becomes the focal point of both the party and the film, with the wall-to-wall music cranked up from the get-go. McQueen moves the camera intimately in amongst the party-goers as they dance the night away, bodies pushing right up next to the roaming lens whilst sweat drips from the walls – there’s a real tangible sense of place. And yet, mood and music trump narrative drive here; even with a brisk runtime just shy of 70 minutes the story beats are stretched thin. With the entire midsection of the film spent revelling to the sound of reggae, little space is left to learn much of the characters we follow, relationships largely inferred from glances between them across the room. As enjoyable as it is to see the party unfold with chaotic abandon, once the evening is overtaken late on by boisterous energy and we retreat with the lead character’s into quieter solitude, I couldn’t help but wish that I knew more about them. As easy as it is to get swept up in Lovers Rock’s soulful rhythm, it’s equally as difficult to connect with it on an emotional level.
Rating (out of 5):
Lovers Rock was part of the programme at the BFI London Film Festival 2020.
Read next: Mangrove Review.