Lovers Rock

****1/2

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Lovers Rock
"The choreography by Coral Messam showcases the garments and limbs in movement." | Photo: Courtesy of NYFF

Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, the Opening Night Gala selection of the New York Film Festival, is a musical of the kind that never existed or was represented like this before. It is a tender homage to the mood and Blues party culture of the West Indian community in the London of the late Seventies and early Eighties - very much focused on the singular specific details of looks and sound and touch, and at the same time pluralistic in the sense that anyone watching who has ever been to a party will be able to relate. Hence, appropriately, Lovers Rock has no apostrophe for the genitive “s”, which would mark the loving party as either singular or plural.

The story, co-written by Courttia Newland, is a girl-meets-boy scenario and the circumstances are anything but cliché. Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a young woman from a religious family, sneaks out of her home at night to meet up with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) to take a bus to a private house, where she encounters a young man who fascinates her (Franklyn played by Micheal Ward). Martha wears her good church shoes and a man carrying a big white foldable cross makes appearances not unlike those of the mysterious silent stranger who haunts Kieslowski’s Decalogue.

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With great care and humour, McQueen shows us the transformation of the house (production design by Helen Scott), from family living space to reggae haven. A bulky sofa, wrapped in plastic, is transported outside into the backyard - the oldest cinema trope in the book. Since silent times, we have watched people carrying furniture, but this feels fresh and new. A sound system is brought in while the carpets are rolled up to be stored till morning. The three women in the kitchen, their hair wrapped in colourful silk scarves, are singing, laughing, chopping tomatoes and thyme for the curry and exude an infectious anticipation, what is called “Vorfreude” (literally pre-joy) in German.

In Albert Maysles' final documentary, Iris, Iris Apfel says that “the best thing about a party is getting dressed for the party." That is not entirely true here, because the party turns out to be great. As far as detailed getting-ready rituals are concerned, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway may come to mind, or, to stay within this festival, Laura Dern’s going-out prepping in Smooth Talk, a Revivals selection.

The house on Ladbrooke Grove in a quiet neighbourhood has successfully been transformed for the occasion into a party space for the Black West Indian community. Many white-owned nightclubs in London were unwelcoming to Black guests and the private parties became a sanctuary. The house in Lovers Rock, filled with guests, feels like a port in the storm.

Music legend Dennis Bovell, a sound system aficionado from the times McQueen reconstructed, can be spotted singing and dancing and it seems that he is the one who keeps the crowd going in an a cappella rhythm, for minutes after Janet Kay’s Silly Games has ended. Micah Levi scored the film and songs of the time, such as Carl Douglas’ smash hit Kung Fu Fighting, which gets the dancing couples revved up and the Revolutionaries’ Kunta Kinte, which separates the women from the men on the dance floor, reinforce the palpable accuracy of perception. The choreography by Coral Messam showcases the garments and limbs in movement and there are plenty of closeups, cinematography by Shabier Kirchner, of a hand here and a sparkly collar there.

Martha is no stranger to encountering violence and heroically rescues another partygoer from being assaulted. The scenes between the newly infatuated couple, greeting the dawn, are romantic and lyrical. Franklyn works in a garage, and not only because of that did I have to think of Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas Of Cherbourg.

During the virtual press conference, I had the opportunity to ask Steve McQueen about his work with costume designer Jacqueline Durran and he spoke about the fact that the home-made fashions of this particular time and place and culture had never been seen on screen before. Durran, who had clothes by Batsheva Hay on the mood board for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, in Lovers Rock manages again to celebrate the fabrics and cuts of a past era, without making them seem cobwebby or dated. Quite the opposite, actually.

Lovers Rock is part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe five-part anthology. Mangrove and Red, White and Blue will screen later on in the New York Film Festival.

Reviewed on: 18 Sep 2020
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A story set in London's West Indian community in the early 1980s.


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