Steve McQueen’s enthralling ‘Lovers Rock’ opened the 2020 New York Film Fest (review)
Last night marked the opening of the 58Th New York Film Festival. A very different festival than any other year, as with all film festivals this year, as a result of the pandemic. Other than a handful of screenings, which will be held outdoors at Drive-Ins in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, most films will be shown virtually, online.
As previously mentioned, opening this years festival is venerable director Steve McQueen’s Lover’s Rock which is part of a five-film anthology, titled Small Axe, that will be shown later this year on the BBC in the UK and here in the States through Amazon. "Small Axe" hails from a West Indian proverb meaning collectively "we are strong" and was also used as the title of a song by Bob Marley (first recorded with Lee Perry for the African Herbsman LP and then again in 1973 for the Wailers classic Burnin’), highlighting the efforts in fighting against what was then the power monopoly in reggae by producers Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid. This anthology highlights stories of the West Indian experience in London from the period 1968 up through the 80’s that are, with the exception of one, structured around true events.
Lovers Rock, an absolutely enthralling tale, is that exception. McQueen along with his co-writer Courttia Newland composed this story based on the memories and stories told to him by family members. More impressionistic than narrative, the film takes place one night sometime around the late '70s and early '80s. As a result of rampant racial discrimination in the UK at that time, black people of a young age were unable to go to predominantly white nightclubs. Instead, they forged their own “Blues Parties” that were held in people’s houses featuring large, bass-heavy, home-brewed sound systems with DJ's, Toasters and Selecters playing the latest sounds coming from Jamaica as well as the US.
The narrative, for what it is, centers around Martha, who after arriving at the party with her friend Patty, meets Franklyn. Over the course of the evening her initial disdain and suspect gives way to romance. Newcomer Amarah-Jae St Auby delivers a sensational performance imbuing Martha, whose tough as nails exterior only barely hides the sensitivity inside. Michael Ward (Bafta 2020 Rising Star award winner) masterfully portrays Franklyn, at first all brooding alpha masculinity that eventually uncovers a surprising sweetness. Although only one night, this immensely talented director deftly touches on subjects of racism, rape, religion and familial bonds, through the actions of a colorful gallery of characters.
What holds all this together and is the lifeblood of the film is the glorious music and dance that runs throughout. Lovers Rock, from where the title comes from, was a form of reggae that developed in London in the 1970s, both as a counterpoint to the more tough minded Jamaican Rastafarian conscious roots sound, heavily played at that time, as well as an extension of the more melodic Rocksteady beat. Smooth, sweet and romantic with connections to the ‘70s soul sounds coming out of America, it got its name from the record label set up by producer Dennis Harris. One of it’s legendary producers, Dennis Bovell even has a cameo in the film. The soundtrack features a slew of reggae hits at the time, as well as American classics such as Carl Douglas’ disco boogie “Kung Fu Fighting” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer” by Sister Sledge.
The most mesmerizing moments of Lovers Rock, though, center around two songs: Janet Kay's classic “Silly Games," and The Revolutionaries' “Kunta Kinte” which has one of the most used and recognizable breakbeats of all time. The former soundtracks a moment in the evening when young budding lovers take to the floor, hypnotically gyrating and touching in a way both sexually charged as well as jubilant and joyous. The scene ends as the music cuts off and the crowd keeps singing the song acapella for five more minutes. A moment made all the more incredible in that, apparently, it was unscripted and spontaneous!
The tuff dub beat of :Kunta Kinte" soundtracks a completely different scene altogether, with the men taking the forefront, slamming and jumping around, ripping off shirts, yelling and chanting in a charged and cathartic release of frustration. Much like David Lynch’s use of dance in films such as Wild at Heart or Blue Velvet -- or even as far back as classic musicals like Singin' in the Rain -- McQueen uses the power of movement and music to convey story in a way that transcends words. Its power is made all the more spectacular by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner's camera that is constantly moving around the floor, searching, dipping, diving and in sync with the actors, With the film's deep rich colors, you can feel (and often see) the sweaty heat coming off the walls and smell the aroma of the curried goat and saltfish being cooked in the kitchen.
At a concise 70 minutes, Lovers Rock tells a not-often-seen story of the past, rooted in Black strength, Black empowerment and Black love that has just as much resonance in the time we are living in now.
There are a few more chances to see Lovers Rock as part of the NYFF. There's September 23 screening at Bronx Drive-In, as well as virtual screenings on October 3 & 5. Tickets are on sale.
NYFF festival will also be showing two more episodes of Small Axe -- Mangrove and Red, White and Blue -- later this month. Can't wait.
You can watch a trailer for the Small Axe anthology series below.