The first of Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’ films opens the New York Film Festival

Lovers Rock SMALL AXE

Dir. Steve McQueen. UK. 2020. 68 mins

Steve McQueen invites the viewer into a whole world in a terraced front room in Lovers Rock, a Notting Hill house party thrown by the West Indian community. It’s a musical and a piece of time and a feeling that’s a privilege to share. Made for BBC TV as part of McQueen’s five-part ‘Small Axe’ series, Lovers Rock was one of two films selected for Cannes (the other being the longer, true-to-life Mangrove), and now opens the New York Film Festival. As evidenced by those selections, its 68-minute run-time is the only part of Lovers Rock that hints at its small-screen origins; this film is special, in so many ways.

McQueen’s least conventional, most cinematically impressive work since Hunger

McQueen is an artist-turned-Oscar-nominated filmmaker, so it’s natural he wants to bend the camera to his will, but this is his least conventional, most cinematically impressive work since Hunger. He wants to talk about the black experience in the UK across this series, and in Lovers Rock he hangs it on a house party in 1980 where young Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward) meet. There are two extraordinary sequences, bravura set-pieces, which bristle with McQueen’s filmmaking brio: one set to the music of the 1979 anthem ‘Silly Games’, and the other, more masculine energy of ‘Kunta Kinte’. Choreography – on the floor and with the camera – is absoluely mesmerising.

But surrounding these showcases is a private, black British life, the one that was led behind closed doors. It’s in the music, from the reggae to the soul, to the speaker stacks, the Selector, the tones of the rich spoken word, the accents, the home-made clothes and the swish of the skirts and the church shoes and elaborate hats and hairstyles. It’s in the kitchen where goat curry and ackee is being made and sold. And it’s on the dancefloor, where a new generation of British West Indians surrender themselves to the music and reduce the world outside to nothing.

If ever there was a film to make an audience crave their youth and crank the volume up, Lovers Rock is it: to dance like Martha’s cousin in a world of your own. The sensations are so strong because these are written memories, shot with emotion. Arms touch on the dancefloor; dresses stretch and sway; the camera glides and caresses, then it jumps with the swinging dreadlocks and top hats. Even the flock wallpaper sweats, and the camera melts in tandem. Nobody has to say much about the world outside this Blues dance: it’s all understood, when the British-born characters switch between their Jamaican-inflected patios and London speech. Here they can be their true selves, or the selves they’d like to be. There are always hints of danger - external and internal - that might erupt.

From the very onset, with the tube train piercing the dusk and the heated preparations inside the house, Lovers Rock relies utterly on sound. The birds; singing in the kitchen; the lilt of the language; the joy of getting ready; and the boom box on the bus where Martha and her best friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) take their seats for this illicit night out (Martha has shimmied down the drainpipe from her bedroom window). It’s a night you wish would never end, but 68 minutes flies by in this company. Jacqueline Durran’s costumes impress, and add much to the piece, but they meld into it; likewise the hairstyles fit into the room and period perfectly without moving attention away from what’s going on.

Emerging, blinking, with the protagonists into the morning light, there’s the joy of reality, and the harshness of it too. Our kids are in love, but the world outside isn’t going to be loving to them or their dreaminess. It’s to McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland’s credit here that we realise this in subtle shifts - from patois to whitespeak and back again - only once or twice is it made explicit, and Lovers Rock is all the more powerful for it.

Like Normal People, this is a powerful evocation of youth, but much more besides. The black British experience, celebrated, and with the sexiest of shimmies. In year where cinema has turned on its head, could the best film be a mere 68 minutes, and made for TV? Lovers Rock makes a strong case.

Production companies: Lammas Park, Turbine Studios

International sales: BBC Worldwide (airing on BBC One in the UK and Amazon in the US)

Executive producers: Steve McQueen, Tracey Scoffield, David Tanner

Screenplay: Courttia Newland, Steve McQueen

Cinematography: Shabier Kirchner

Editing: Chris Dickens, Steve McQueen

Production design: Helen Scott

Main cast: Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, Shaniqua Okwok, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Ellis George, Alexander James-Blake, Kadeem Ramsay, Francis Lovehall, Daniel Francis-Swaby