Seductive, shrewd and special, Lovers Rock is just one chapter in a new five-film anthology about Black London life from the 1960s to the ’80s, all of them directed by British filmmaker and artist Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). It immerses us in a house party in west London in 1980 – a swirl of excited preparations, followed by the rituals and rhythms of the party itself, a cash-on-the-door reggae night at a house in Ladbroke Grove. There’s flirting. Showing off. Loosening up. Getting it on. A lot of dancing. Some hanging about. A queue for the toilet. Some heavy behaviour in the garden. Clouds of cigarette smoke, loads of sweat and the buzz of the crowd-pulling Bruce Lee dance-moves when the needle drops on Kung Fu Fighting.
And that’s it. It’s a blissfully simple, short story of a film, unfolding over just one night, framed by dusk and dawn. While it might be a quick fix – a high, a swoon, a rush and it’s over – McQueen and his co-writer Courttia Newland cram an enormous amount of joy, experience and suggestion into just 68 minutes.
It’s mostly an ensemble piece – a bunch of characters each get a moment in the spotlight – but if it’s anyone’s story, it’s Martha’s (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn). We follow her sneaking out of home and back again, until her night ends with the promise of more to come from Franklyn (Micheal Ward), the handsome guy she meets. There are events – a scuffle, the blossoming romance, some aggro on the door, a lot of laughs – yet it’s the dancefloor moments you’ll remember: the women breaking into an acapella version of Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’, and then the male flipside, a stomping, sweaty mass of blokes getting down to The Revolutionaries’ soundsystem standard ‘Kunta Kinte’.
This is a clued-up film, aware of the divisions of race, class, power, money that would define much of the lives of these first- and second-generation Black Londoners, many of them the sons and daughters of Caribbean immigrants. But, apart from a couple of telling interactions away from the party – a condescending white boss, a group of menacing white boys – its politics are implicit. With Lovers Rock McQueen creates a proud bubble of Black youth: the party and the music cancel out the noise of parents, bosses, church, racists and other downers of early 1980s England. But they’re all hinted at. The party is an escape, a retreat, a sort of freedom.
And what a party. McQueen and his collaborators (cinematographer Shabier Kirchner deserves a special shout-out) immerse us so deeply into the sounds, sights and smells of this time and this place that there’s barely time to think. The detail is hypnotic. It’s a film of sounds, feelings and textures. The tunes will lodge in your brain, and you’ll leave blinking into the light like you were right there yourself – wondering where you’ve been, what you’ve seen and when you can return.
Lovers Rock airs in the UK on BBC One in November as part of Small Axe, an anthology of five films by Steve McQueen.