Lovers Rock never really takes a moment to let you find your footing as a viewer. Instead, filmmaker Steve McQueen simply begins by showing the inhabitants of a home prepping for something. Furniture is being cleared, food is being cooked, songs are being sung. There’s an inherently playful relationship between all the parties involved, and this is all shown without names, motives, or prominent dialogue for that matter. Instead, nuance is the name of the game here, and it’s a game that over the brisk, yet perfect, 68-minute runtime is handled with maximum effect. Because once the furniture is cleared, out come the speakers and the turntable. We’re witnessing the birth of a house party, and if the playful banter and light music playing is any indication, it’s bound to be a night to remember.
And no surprise, due to McQueen being a masterful filmmaker, it is surely a night, and a film, to remember and hold very dear to your heart. For this is more than a party McQueen wants to display. It’s not just a story about how two people meet and fall for one another. There are larger elements at play, and since a majority of communal events have been placed on hold for the better part of the year so far, the message of this film rings especially loud and has even more of an impact than perhaps initially intended. Lovers Rock is an innately beautiful film due to the sleek and naturalistic way the camera whisks around the party and its attendees. The film is beautifully lit, and the soundtrack is just nonstop sonic greatness; there’s two moments in this, specifically set to Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” and “Kunta Kinte” by The Revolutionaries, that are otherworldly in their delivery, and profoundly saddening when watching knowing that something like this seems so far away. But it’s saddening because of how flawless it all is. McQueen’s power of conveying emotion is felt in the entire film, but in these moments, it’s especially potent.
But where does this emotion come from? A few different relationships and characters are brought forth, but the most prominent are between two people who happen to cross paths and spend the party in the company of one another. In another film, this relationship might have been followed and picked apart extensively, but McQueen elevates beyond that. While they are the focal point contextually, symbolically the film is operating on another level, one that is not working with them, but through them. The camera ethereally moves from couple to couple, stranger to stranger, dancer to dancer as the music and night progresses. No one person here is more important than another. In a communal setting such as this, especially during the time of blues parties in 1980’s Britain, everybody is there for free expression. And to see such expression portrayed so freely, so organically, and so uncontrollably becomes a passageway to pure bliss. When you finally see that person, when your favorite song comes on, all inhibitions go out the window and all that’s left to do is sing and dance. It’s this fundamental truth of life that rings the truest in Lovers Rock, and McQueen gracefully revels in those moments of complete and utter expression.
One interesting thing to note about this film as a whole though, are the moments that it chooses to gloss over. In terms of conflict, there are certainly glimpses shown, but they remain as just that: glimpses. The fact that McQueen chooses not to dwell on these uglier moments rooted in the setting of the film is an interesting approach, and it’s difficult to say whether this helps or hinders the film. Make no mistake, if McQueen’s previous films have proved anything, it’s that he can make profoundly powerful films about the ugliest subjects history has been plagued with. So, it begs the question of why these moments were passed over. Perhaps it’s to revel in the better moments of life, and at 68 minutes, it’s difficult to cover much more ground as perfectly as it’s done here.
All in all, McQueen is operating at another level here. This is poetic cinema at its finest, where rather than let the characters speak for the film, the film speaks for its characters. Everything and everyone become a crucial piece of the story, from the music chosen to the house the party takes place in, to the DJ’s and attendees and bartenders and cooks. It doesn’t matter what your plans are the following morning, such as where you need to go and who you need to see. For a few glorious hours on a Saturday night, your body and soul belong to the dance. They belong to the place where you want to get up and expose every part of yourself to the world in the most glorious way possible: singing and dancing. This film will leave you yearning for a time when the world can come together and dance again, but until then, it will make you appreciate all the past times like these so much more.
Lovers Rock premiered at NYFF and will be available on Prime Video later this year.