“I’ve been wanting you
For so long, it’s a shame”
The most rapturous movie moment of 2020 comes in the middle of Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock.” I think one of the reasons why it affected me so much was because I didn’t expect something like this from a director who normally navigates in darker waters – and because I didn’t anticipate being so seduced by it. The DJ starts playing a song by Janet Kay called “Silly Games.” You notice that the dance floor is getting excited. The camera focuses on a young man pulling out his afro pick and sensuously fixing his hair. There’s a young girl in the middle of the room surrounded by couples dancing. She’s by herself and transfixed by the beat of the music. It’s a slow moving reggae song. All the other pairs of dancers appear to be swaying in slow motion. The wall paper around them seems to be emanating a golden glow making them all look as if they were contained in liquid amber. There’s a close-up of the walls, and there’s condensation – sweat – dripping down them. The camera luxuriates in the black skin and the hands touching each other as they move. Bodies pressing against each other. The tune plays in its entirety – for about three minutes and 45 seconds, but you don’t want it to end. When it does, the women pick up the lyrics – singing a cappella ….“’cause every time we meet / we play hide and seek.” A sole male with a deep timbre supports them. You hear their feet stomping the ground. They’re all singing in unison – in communion and in so much longing – in ecstasy. Wow, this is like nothing I’ve experienced this year. This is what cinematic nirvana is all about. I’m still on a contact high.
Art has always been about escape. That sweet surrendering to the powers of the muse – in this case a song – to give you – even if it is momentary – a respite from what assails you is what “Lovers Rock” taps into.
The film world premiered at the opening night of the New York Film Festival. McQueen directed five films which are meant to be an anthology called “Small Axe” about the lives of West Indian immigrants in London during the 1960s and 70s. You can see three of them on Amazon Prime. They are meant to be stand-alone works. “Lovers Rock” is the standout.
There’s a threadbare plot. Young people gather at a home in Ladbroke Grove, West London for an evening of dancing. Martha has nervously snuck out of her home through the window and met up with Patty. They’re both excited. Before the guests are allowed in, we see women in the kitchen preparing curry goat and ackee and saltfish to be sold. The visuals had my mouth watering. The camera lingers on the detail of a woman’s hair as it is ironed. A DJ group known as the Mercury Sound is installing the big speakers and the equipment. A pair of white punks sneer outside the house.
Once the guests are allowed in – there seems to be all these rituals – courtship, preening and rebuffing. At a particular moment – close ups of hands reaching for female elbows – and the dancing begins. Eventually Martha will meet up with Franklyn – and their relationship will bloom. Another character is introduced, Cynthia. It happens to be her birthday. “Where are you taking me?” she asks from a forceful seducer as she’s led to the back garden. There will be undercurrents of racism and class differences. The men start taking over the dancefloor – and the reggae becomes more masculine, more dangerous. More beat driven. More percussion. Male toxicity takes over the room. “Let out the lion,” says the DJ.
There’s transfixing camera work by Shabier Kirchner. This is a feast for the senses. The music seduces you. The genre you’re listening to is called Lovers Rock – a style of reggae music distinguished for its romantic sound. It was popular in London in the mid-1970s. Early on, you will hear Carl Douglas’ Kung-Fu fighting — and watching the young women in their flowing multi-colored skirts doing martial arts moves is a highlight. It all comes down to a quiet romantic and hopeful morning when the festivity ends – and our characters go back to reality. Alas, the New Cross Fire and Brixton riots loom in the horizon.
But for 70 minutes, this party is a total delight.
Doorman: “It is lovely to have such well put-together ladies inna dance. Enjoy your night.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime
Screenplay by Courttia Newland and Steve McQueen. Story by Steve McQueen.
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Michael Ward
Writer/Director Steve McQueen on Writing and Bringing “Lovers Rock” to the Screen
“This movie is based on my aunt. She wasn’t allowed to go to these parties, and my uncle would leave the back door open and she would sneak out on a Saturday night and come back in the morning in time to go to church. I knew that was going to be the journey of this script. The script started with hundreds of interviews. I was passionate to record their histories. I wanted to get everything down on paper. It was a history that wasn’t told, The dialogue—it could bring you somewhere, but this film was more about the mood. The language was a means to an end. It was all about the mood, the mood, the mood. For me it was about my senses. It was always about my smell, my taste and my hearing, this was the most important part. As humans I think we pick up on things so well, so quickly, and in this case with ‘Lovers Rock,’ for me, it was a part that was unique yet very universal, and I just wanted it to have that universal feel to it. I trust art. I trust film. I trust it. And hopefully we can make an atmosphere which allows things to happen and that’s exactly what happened in this film. You go in with a script and for me sometimes it’s a map; it’s not always the destination. It allows you to get the cameras rolling.” (scriptmag.com)
The Inspiration Behind “Lovers Rock”
“The Lovers Rock” gathering was inspired by McQueen’s own memories, hearing about the “blues parties” — house parties hosted by Black Londoners — that his Aunt Molly wasn’t allowed to attend. Turned away from white nightclubs, members of the city’s West Indian community planned their own evenings out, where they could dance to their own music, eat their own food. The first scenes of the movie are all about the preparation: Young men run around the house, putting together a sound system and doing a rudimentary sound check; grandmas and aunties move between the sink and the stove, taking care to season the food just so. “My grandmother would not allow my aunt to go to these parties,” McQueen says. “She would lock the door, but my uncle would leave the back door open for [Molly to sneak out]. For me, it was almost like hearing a ‘Cinderella’ story: She went out to these parties, and came back, and had to go to church the next morning.” That memory became the film’s outline: Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) slips out of her family’s home to go to a blues party, where she meets Franklyn (Micheal Ward), and they flirt and dance all night. “Don’t forget, in those days, people used to work for the weekend,” McQueen says. “With this racism and oppression people had to deal with in the week — people lived for that Saturday.” (vulture.com)
The Music of “Lovers Rock”
Music runs deep through the generations in McQueen’s family history. A decade before his Aunt Molly danced to Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, his mum, Mary, was a 60s teenager in thrall to the pop and soul performers she watched religiously on the weekly music programme “Ready, Steady, Go!” Her brother, Carl, was a regular in the studio audience and, McQueen tells me, “was called the Black Beatle because he had straightened his hair”. The quintessential mod group of the 60s, the Small Faces, feature twice on the soundtrack to “Small Axe” with “Tin Soldier” and “Lazy Sunday.” “That was definitely a nod to my mum’s record collection,” says McQueen. Decades later, the group also played a small but symbolic part in the soundtrack of his own life: “It was their song ‘All Or Nothing’ that was blasting out over the PA when I first met my wife at an Ajax FC game in Amsterdam,” he says. “Steve Marriott! What a voice! Absolutely incredible – talk about the rebel yell. He had it.” Another more unlikely singer to feature on two of the films is the smooth 60s crooner “Gentleman” Jim Reeves, an American country star whose ballads became a surprising soundtrack for an older generation of Jamaicans. “I had to put Jim Reeves in there,” says McQueen. “I remember on Sundays my dad would play those tunes and put his feet up. He was huge in the West Indian community. I think it’s to do with hope, which is a big theme in American country music. Without the hope they found in music, a lot of people I know would not be here now.” Reeves’s song “The World Is Not My Home,” which features in “Red, White and Blue, the story of Leroy Logan,” a West Indian officer isolated in an unwelcoming white police force, is particularly resonant. The song’s message of not belonging echoes the similar sentiments of countless Rastafarian reggae songs, where home is both the place left behind, but also the promised land awaiting those who believe.
“Home was not where you were living,” says McQueen, “but the place where things were always better. Rastafarians constructed their own faith around that belief, not least because their surroundings were so unwelcoming and oppressive. If Rasta had not provided that sense of togetherness, I think there would have been deep psychosis among young people from the West Indian community back in the 1970s.” McQueen’s own taste in music is broad and often surprising. He came of age in the 80s, when illegal warehouse parties sprang up in disused buildings all over London as an antidote to the more established – and expensive – mainstream club scene. “Those were wild times,” he says. “I remember when I was 15 or 16, there would be flyers that were passed around at school telling you where the party was that weekend. We’d listened to David Rodigan and pirate radio and then head across London to Acton, Shepherd’s Bush, Peckham, Ladbroke Grove. It was exciting, because you didn’t know what was going to happen next. Things moved so fast so there was always this sense of anticipation and danger when you headed out for the night.” For a time…he followed the London DJ Norman Jay, and his Shake’n’Fingerpop and Good Times sound systems, wherever they played. By then, American soul, rare groove and old-school hip-hop had supplanted reggae as the predominant soundtrack for a new, multicultural generation of urban revellers and the blues party began to lose its place as a nexus of young West Indian emigrant experience. Except that the dub sounds that had been played at those makeshift gatherings continued to echo through dance music culture. You can hear their influence in the sonic adventurism of trip-hop, house, drum’n’bass, garage, grime and beyond. “Dub was essentially futuristic,” says McQueen. “It came overground in all sorts of ways because the momentum of Black music culture is about constant reinvention, drawing on the past to create the future, always trying for that sound that’s further out, just beyond one’s reach. So, you had hip-hop and then acid house hit and that’s when it got properly mad.” (theguardian.com)
Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn on “Lovers Rock”
“Our film has everything to do with celebrating Black culture,” says St. Aubyn. “It’s about the power of the Black community celebrating each other, and finding power in one another at a time of segregation.” St. Aubyn is no stranger to performing, and her passion for her craft is palpable. The actress graduated from the Brit School, a performing arts and technology institution, and soon dabbled in London-based theater thereafter—she joined the West End cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in 2018. On the side, she works at a restaurant, and says that each of her shifts with her loving “work family” is something she looks forward to. “It’s also the most humbling thing, to do a shoot one day and be serving food the next.” But she says she has tunnel vision: she knows acting is her calling in every sense of the word, and she’s doing everything possible to fulfill that vision. With “Lovers Rock,” she is carving a place for herself on screen. McQueen, whom St. Aubyn describes as a “genius,” provided her with the space to grow while filming. “I would have moments of doubt but this genius of a director trusted me with his work,” she says. “He and Micheal really helped me progress my craft and I can only hope to work with talented people like them again.” The entire film was shot in two weeks last September, helping to replicate the essence of events that had just 24 hours to unfold. “Steve would tell me to just enjoy it, feel the moment, and stick to the vision of the story. He allowed me to know: I got this.”
The love story is the only film in the anthology which wasn’t inspired by true events, but St. Aubyn explains that this doesn’t make the story any less of a reality. “This is what happened,” she says. “People fell in love at these parties and then came together, starting to create families. And it wasn’t just meeting and dancing—for them, it was a release and a way to work off all the struggles of their weeks.” For St. Aubyn, too, reggae has played an undeniable role in her life: her father was a reggae artist himself, and her entire family would listen to the music during car rides and dinners at home. And in what was a purely coincidental moment, a photograph of her father was included as a part of the mood board on set. “I remember seeing it and telling everyone, ‘That’s my dad!’” St. Aubyn laughs. The story itself relates to the lives of her parents and so many others. Her family, she says, recalled certain moments of their own pasts after seeing the film: memories of dance, setting up massive sound systems, and transforming homes into places of joy. “It’s definitely emotional in that sense,” she says. “I saw the look on my dad’s face as we watched the film together, and it was like he’d seen it all. My parents had these very experiences. While they watched it, they would say, ‘Do you remember this?’” The anthology has been in the making for almost 12 years, St. Aubyn notes, but it was through fate that the films were released during a revolutionary year that has thrust racial discourse and the Black Lives Matter movement into the spotlight. She believes the films are important not just for Black youth, but for the population as a whole. Each story is a slice of “truth for the world,” a collection of untold narratives that will now uplift a community. “I never thought I would be the lead in a love story,” she says. “I hope it inspires other Black girls and shows them that they can do the same.” (wmagazine.com)
About Writer and Director Steve McQueen
Born in London, England in 1969, Steve McQueen is an artist, film director, and screenwriter currently based in London and Amsterdam. His themes are universal and often focus on painful biographies. McQueen has mastered the art of minimalist storytelling to deliver the utmost impact on his viewers. In his own words he “wants to put the public in a situation where everyone becomes acutely sensitive to themselves, to their body and respiration.” He has directed four feature films, most recently “Widows” (2018). His first, “Hunger” (2008), was awarded the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and his third, “12 Years a Slave” (2013), received the Golden Globe, Oscar, and BAFTA awards for best picture in 2014. Celebrated internationally for his art, McQueen has been featured in “Documenta” (1997 and 2002), represented the national pavilion of Great Britain at the Fifty-Third Venice Biennale in 2009, and been selected several times for the Venice Biennale’s central pavilion (2003, 2007, 2013, and 2015). Solo exhibitions of his work have been held at the Art Institute of Chicago (2012) and Schaulager, Basel (2013); and at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (all 2017). In 2019 he presented Year 3, a portrait of an entire age group of London schoolchildren, at Tate Britain, London. In February 2020 a major solo exhibition opened at the Tate Modern, London. (mariangoodman.com) His most recent work “Small Axe” a 5-part film series was released in 2020.