NYFF 2020

Lovers Rock review – this is what pleasure feels like

Steve McQueen captures the pure euphoria of the house party with this haptic, sensual portrait of one night in 80s Ladbroke Grove

The warm hum of a house party feels like a distant memory. It might seem trivial – don’t they always go on for too long? Isn’t there always someone you’re trying to avoid? – but Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, across its golden 68 minutes, brings that feeling back to life with precise and hedonistic passion.

The first of five feature films in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Lovers Rock takes the viewer to a Ladbroke Grove house party in the 1980s. The time and place matter, as it’s here that first- and second-generation West Indian Londoners turn up, pay 50p on the door, and dance the night away when no one else in London would let them in. As visitors ourselves, we walk through the party and take in every haptic sensation – the smell of a goat curry gentling bubbling away; the propulsive bass of the resident DJs’ latest showstopper; the trickle of condensation down the walls. All the while the temperature rises, every blissed-out person losing themselves in the melodies.

There are characters, and tiny snatches of individual stories – the threat of racist intruders and casual sexual harassment never fade from view. But Lovers Rock is at its most beguiling when sweeping you up in these stolen moments of joy. It feels impossibly specific and personal, yet welcoming enough for any tourist viewer to experience a wash of bliss in every beat too. Every person is possessed by the music: Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” warms up even the shyest dancers, as their hellbent focus on the upcoming drop in the track cracks you open to laugh and move along with them.

But the centrepiece is undoubtably Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” this butter-smooth reggae number gently pushing people into one another. Where other party pictures might choose to highlight a single pair, Lovers Rock makes space for everyone to lean in to this moment. Bodies come closer, hands intertwine, eyes close, hips sway. Kay’s voice becomes one with those who know her music inside out. It’s an almost religious, transcendent experience.

McQueen does zoom out, occasionally, switching up the pace to show how vibrant and eclectic this party – like any great party – is. His quasi-heroes are Amarah-Jae St Aubyn as Martha, who makes a sparkling screen debut, and Top Boy’s Micheal Ward. The film doesn’t need to over-explain their attraction, but frames it carefully enough that by the time morning comes around and Martha is back in her bed, you miss them – and the night you shared – as much as they miss each other.

Lovers Rock feels unlike anything else put to screen this year, precisely because it offers a reminder of just how rich, how satisfying, and how electric the moments lived offscreen can be. Hold onto the ones you love, turn the music up until you can feel it in your bones. This is what pleasure, in all its seductive and fleeting glory, feels like.

Lovers Rock was screened as part of the New York Film Festival 2020.

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