Watching Lovers Rock is akin to going to see Romeo and Juliet and only staying through the first act, to departing a basketball game after the first quarter, to sipping the soup and skipping the rest of the meal. A mere wisp of a thing, Steve McQueen’s 68-minute feature, the only fictional section of a five-film anthology called Small Axe about London’s West Indian community between the late 1960s and 1980, steeps you in the atmosphere and music of the latter date. But slight it is, a sensory and nostalgic treat up to a point but one that, on its own, offers just passing insight into a very specific culture.
Seen in the context of the weightier episodes to come, this modestly intended installment makes sense, but all by its lonesome it feels distinctly minor, a sensual warm-up for meatier courses to come; a large part of it is simply given over to watching people dance and hang out. Given its abbreviated running time and very particular subject matter, it’s a curiously modest, feel-good choice to open this year’s pared down New York Film Festival. The BBC-produced series will be shown in the U.S. on Amazon Prime in the fall.
Music, sex and, to a lesser degree, getting wasted combine to provide the main focus to this literal table-setter; it’s a modest, amiable but entirely unremarkable introduction to a scene and community that are dealt with in far more serious and political ways in the four longer subsequent entries. Minor behavioral and musical pleasures dot the hour and change, but other than for the special flavor of the islands-born rhythms and the particular patois of the characters, the party moves here are very familiar, a stylish Caribbean variation on countless musically driven American teen movies from the 1950s onward. Parts of it are simply uneventful to the edge of boredom.
Three women happily sing and sway as they work together in the kitchen while the guys tote the audio equipment and move furniture around in preparation for a house party that night. A small fee is charged for entry and, to the strains of Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” emanating from the 45 turntable operated by a couple of guys, the mostly dolled-up guests begin to arrive.
Using plenty of islands argot that will be impossible for outsiders to fully understand, the partiers get down to business right away, pulling out the blunts, flirting and dancing. Given the brevity of the piece, the central figures, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklin (Michael Ward), necessarily meet early on; he’s the best-looking guy there and a smooth talker to boot, while she’s gregarious and full of life, if not happy at the moment. What ends up happening seems pretty much pre-ordained.
While there are brief side shows, tensions among some guests and little dramas that don’t amount to much, the vast majority of the hour-plus is devoted to laughing, dancing, carrying on and just generically partying, often in tight close-ups. The most that can be said for this little time capsule immersion is that it provides a glimpse of a certain musical and cultural moment. But there’s no special context or bigger picture provided against which the evening is proposed to be seen; that will come in subsequent episodes.
McQueen resorts to what seem like dozens of cutaways to the DJ’s changing records. As the evening wears on and the drug intake overcomes the more unruly guests, some unpleasantness rises to the surface and threatens to spoil the good times, but the trouble feels manufactured, just thrown in. It all ends on a sweet note as Martha and Franklin, grown-ups both, face the dawning new day, to make of the future what they will.
It’s a simple, straightforward slice-of-life piece, with a positive spirit, an alertness to small details of a very particular time and place. Perhaps it will seem more relevant in the context of the entire series once it is seen.
For the record, “Small Axe” refers to a West Indian proverb meaning “Together we are strong.”