They call it a "blues party" but they really aren’t playing the blues. Yet, this 1979 West London get-together is not so different from a swing-era Harlem rent party or a hill country hootenanny. It is all about feeling the groove and hopefully your dance partner, while someone makes a little change at the door in Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, the second installment of his Small Axe film sequence, which premieres today on Amazon Prime.
They had to take all the furniture out to fit all the people they expected, but space will still be tight. Of course, that is the point. This is way, way before the era of social distancing. If Martha and her friend Patty meet a fellow they are interested in, they will definitely want to dance slow and close. Franklyn obviously catches Martha’s eye and vice versa. Unfortunately, his wingman crashed and burned with Patty, but that will not sabotage their mutual attraction.
Some of the music heard in Lovers Rock isn’t what fans of the subgenre might immediately think of “Lovers Rock” either, particularly not Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting.” Menelik Shabazz’s The Story of Lover’s Rock (which used an apostrophe) provides an excellent survey of the music, which derived from reggae, but was smoother, more romantic, and less political than the Jamaican-based variety of the period (ironically, considering the polemical nature of the other Small Axe films). However, it features the song that was arguably Lovers Rock’s greatest hit, Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” in a truly show-stopping sequence. First, we watch the dancers grind to Kay’s record and then we hear the entire house sing the lyrics as an ecstatic a cappella chorus.
McQueen would have been a terrific music video director during the 1980s—and that is not meant as a slight. Quite the contrary. Every shot seems to marry-up seamlessly with the beats of the soundtrack, while cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s close-ups bring out the passion and the frustration of the characters. However, the sense that one of the more predatory guests is likely to overstep the bounds of propriety before the end of the night adds an uneasy vibe that prevents viewers from casting their cares away and simply enjoying the show. Of course, that also gives the film most of its dramatic tension.
At a mere 70-mintues (counting every second of the end titles), Lovers Rock is definitely on the short side and the narrative could not be much simpler, but it is visually striking period production. It immerses viewers in the sights, sounds, and body heat of the late 1970s blues party scene. Taken individually, Lovers Rock is a relatively small film that stands well enough on its own. Recommended for fans of Lovers Rock music, Small Axe: Lovers Rock starts streaming today (11/27) on Amazon.