Lovers Rock is a coming of age ode to the mid ’70s to late ’80s London reggae scene
One of five films that make up multi-award winning filmmaker Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Lovers Rock is set in West London’s Ladbroke Grove in the early ’80s and captures one night of a house party hosted by young first/second generation Caribbeans. It has the music, the vibes, and if you grew up in a West Indian home in the ’80s you’ll even smell the cooking the aunties were putting down in the kitchen whilst singing Janet Kay’s Silly Games which evidently becomes the film’s theme song.
Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn plays the eager Martha, ready to throw her religious parents’ caution to the wind to attend the forbidden dance. Excited, she sneaks out to meet best friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) and together they embark on a night of music, new love, and provocative dancing. As they enter the dance the young girls receive a lot of attention from would be suitors as they Kung Fu fight their way around the dance floor, getting the side-eye from party host Cynthia (Ellis George – Dr Who) whose jealous streak later becomes gratitude when Martha saves her from a terrible act.
Micheal Ward (Blue Story) plays the ballsy Franklyn who swoops in and whisks Martha off her feet it’s then, the audience is treated to an intimate glimpse into how the couple’s relationship develops throughout the night. Unforgettable is a dance sequence against the sounds of Silly Games. A moment that sees condensation running down the wallpapered walls and bodies gyrating very closely – (it was Franklyn’s lip bite as he and Martha’s entwined bodies connected to each other and the 2-step music that did it for me) not even Patrick Swayze could compete with them. A moment made even more epic when the revellers who seemingly in a daze didn’t stop when the music suddenly cut off, instead, continuing to sing a cappella with one or two hitting Janet’s famous high notes. McQueen’s signature overly lengthy scene in Lovers Rock is a soul-stirring piece of cinema.
There is sovereignty amongst the party-goers in another stand out scene which appears to pay homage to 80’s cult movie Babylon where we see the Rastafarians in attendance, light their spliffs, and dance and jump around almost in a trance as they become lost in the junglistic dub bass sounds. Even the requisite villain of the story becomes one of many as the crowd let loose. This moment fits with the real world timeline where we know that outside the safety of the dance there is much racial tension in Enoch Powell’s England. Within the confinements of the dance, the energy behind their refusal to bow down to social oppression fills the room and outpours into the cinema. For those who do not understand the culture, it may seem like reckless wild juking and jiving and pounding the walls for fun but this was a powerful nod to roots/Rastafarian reggae and its political stance in contrast to the apolitical stance of the smooth sounds of Lovers.
Lovers Rock is a feel-good movie with a well-chosen cast successfully driven by the amazing chemistry between Ward and St. Aubyn. It’s lovely to see Ward as a leading man in a romantic role. More please! McQueen’s ode to black youthful love and the music that carries them, was both charismatic and authentic in its exploration of the culture with an outstanding soundtrack featuring The Wailers, Janet Kay, Matumbi, Fil Callender, and Jah Stitch that will take many back in time. When the film ends, I dare anyone to not feel enveloped in the memory of their first dance with a potential partner.
McQueen has another hit on his hands, and this series of films will most definitely stand as an important piece of British film history.
Lovers Rock airs on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on November 22 as part of Steve McQueen’s anthology series Small Axe which kicks off with Mangrove November 15th.
Read our Out Of 100 review of Mangrove here.