Steve McQueen doesn’t tend to make what I would consider to be joyful films. Now don’t get me wrong, McQueen is one of my favorite working filmmakers, but when Widows is your most uplifting movie, odds are audiences are going to approach any new work prepared for a descent into the darker recesses of humanity — which is what makes Lovers Rock such a pleasant surprise. Three installments of McQueen’s Small Axe anthology have screened for critics and festival-goers so far, but unlike Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, Lovers Rock pulls away from the injustices faced by London’s West Indian population to instead focus on an exuberant, communal experience.
The film’s title comes from the reggae style popularized in 1970s London, and the film itself revels in the genre, following a night at a house party where men and women gather to drink, sing, dance, and — maybe — fall in love. McQueen has always had a knack for immersive filmmaking but outdoes himself here, staging the film in a manner that feels like real-time even though, at a scant 71 minutes, it’s barely feature length. As the camera roves through the crowded house, stopping here and there to catch snippets of conversation, McQueen draws you into the world, placing you under a spell that remains unbroken until after the screen goes black. The music is pervasive, even when not the film’s immediate focus, but the most magical moments are those that place that lovers rock center stage, with the partygoers joining together to harmonize in blissful glee.
The structure is nearly that of a concert documentary, but McQueen maximizes narrative efficiency, giving the majority of the principal players plenty of moments to shine. Unsurprisingly, not everyone attending the party has good intentions, and there are moments of overt and subtle menace interlaced throughout, but they are outweighed for the most part by the nuanced romance at the film’s core. As we wind our way around the interior and exterior of the flat, we’re anchored by the presence of Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn as young adults with an instant attraction and a desire for connection. They’re the kind of pair that lovers rock was made for, and McQueen gives them — and us — a night to remember. As dawn breaks the afterglow sets in, with reality pushing at the edges; we may not know what the future holds, but we can carry the music with us into that unknown.