Writers: Courttia Newland and Steve McQueen
Director: Steve McQueen
Two dramas from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series for the BBC celebrating West Indian culture are book-ending this year’s London Film Festival which began with Mangrove, an exceptional Festival opener that set a high standard. This more modest 70-minute piece Lovers Rock is no less suffused with meaning and purpose as McQueen turns his auteur’s eye on music and dancing.
It’s a Saturday night in the 1980s and Cynthia’s birthday party, a Blues night, is about to begin at a house in Ladbroke Grove. Final preparations are underway, carpets are rolled up, sound systems plugged in, curries simmered and hair teased when the first guests arrive. Martha has shinned down her drainpipe and Patty has put on her finest outfit for a night of dancing, drinking and possible romance.
There is relatively little dialogue and almost no plot as such in Lovers Rocks but as with a real party unfolding before us the opportunities for discussion and dramas are few and far between. The house is filled with the sounds of movement and celebration as strangers encircle one another in carefully choreographed patterns that highlight their sense of freedom but also the hidden dangers as predatory men lurk on the edges of the room.
The vast majority of Lovers Rock showcases the dancing that morphs and changes as the evening wears on. In the early stages of the party, only female friends perform the rehearsed dance moves of their favourite bands before the tone changes and couples dominate the floor, their intimate movements and immersion with each another blocking out the wider event completely before a final, almost exclusively male, frenzy of fierce stomping and tribalism as the partygoers demand their favourite track is repeated again and again.
How McQueen weaves his camera between the dancers is exemplary, capturing these character shifts in the mood of the party while honing in on the physical expression the music inspires in the room. His focus on hips and torsos rolling to the beat nods to the staff club scene in Dirty Dancing which is full of seduction and intent while beads of sweat form and drip down the embossed wallpaper. The ebb and flow of the party buzz is superbly captured as twosomes give way to a mass of gyrating bodies, these dance scenes anchoring the sketched-out human dramas that erupt and recede on the fringes.
It’s all stunningly lit by art director Guy Bevitt and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, who give a plainer wash to the scenes of real life taking place in the hallway and outside. The party room is filled with a palette of variegated colours, where soft pink-reds, warm yellows and oranges mingle together creating the heat and dreamlike feel of the dance floor as characters lose themselves in the music and movement.
The audience largely follows Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn’s Martha around the party but we never really get to know her, or any of the female attendees from whose perspective we experience the event including Shaniqua Okwok’s frustrated Patty and Ellis George’s jealous Cynthia. And the men are no more distinct except as archetypes – Franklin the faithful lover (Micheal Ward) or the menacing Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby).
But none of this really matters because this party is alive with life, it shifts and sweats and heaves with the combined energy of the dancers as McQueen’s camera puts us right in the middle. And while tomorrow all of these people will go back to their lives – and for some their original London accents – for tonight they just want to dance and maybe fall in love.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October