A good cinematic party scene is hard to pull off. Much like (non-boxing) sports, another area in which films fail to match the real thing’s thrill, the appeal of a party – spontaneity, living in the moment – is generally antithetical to the process of making a film, with all its planning, choreography, and repetition. For the second entry of his ‘Small Axe’ series, Lovers Rock, not only has Steve McQueen managed to perfect the on-screen house party, he’s built an entire film around it, making for one of the most intoxicating, joyous movies of the year.
Set from dusk til dawn over one night in 80s Ladbroke Grove, Lovers Rock has a large ensemble cast, but the protagonist is really the party itself. We follow its progression as we would a hero’s character arc, seeing how it shifts and transforms as the night progresses and people come together and split apart in various rooms and gardens. That said, there is special interest paid to Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn in a luminous film debut), who has snuck out to this party, and Franklin (Top Boy’s Micheal Ward with some off-the-charts charisma), the charming boy she meets there.
Every party sensation you can imagine is packed in to Lovers Rock’s tiny, 68 minute runtime. From the nervous energy of the first dance by the early arrivals to the vain attempts to perk up a friend who is seemingly determined to have a bad time to the unsteady vibes of a guy who’s on something a bit harder than everyone else, McQueen and Courttia Newland’s script is guaranteed to conjure memories, both fond and foul, of parties in your past. It’s an achievement more bittersweet now than when it was written, with house parties a relic of the pre-COVID era, but it still had me grinning like an idiot from start to finish.
McQueen is so attuned to the feel of the party that you feel as if you’ve stepped directly into the house yourself. The drip of sweat on the walls, the wafting smells of mouthwatering food being prepared, and the omnipresent music, making itself known wherever you are in the house, create a dizzying sensory experience, bolstered by some magnificent camerawork. A close-up montage of hands moving – clasping on to other hands, arms, waists, and bums – when the DJ puts on more sensual music is beautiful, and a long take of the revellers singing along to Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ is near-enough transcendent.
Even when things die down and people start shuffling home, the pleasure of the night is still going strong, and a sunrise bike ride with Martha and Franklin might be 2020’s single happiest scene. McQueen’s ambitions are mostly kept within the four walls of the party house – this is the least ‘political’ of the ‘Small Axe’ films – but there is still a very specific sense of time and place to go with the universal joys. The party is exclusively for the West Indian community, but angry white men still prowl at the periphery and the briefest glimpse of a police car is enough to set you on edge. Meanwhile, dangers lurk within too, and the escalating transgressions of an overly-insistent male guest are nauseatingly familiar.
You’ll miss Lovers Rock almost as soon as it ends. It makes a connection, as the best parties do, that is profound despite, or maybe even because of, how fleeting it is, ending on notes of hope, laughter, and just a tiny sense of some unknown potential unfulfilled. There couldn’t be a better film to counter the lockdown blues.