Exactly 34 minutes and 38 seconds into Lovers Rock, something magical happens. Lovers and friends attending a 1980 house party are dancing to Janet Kay’s 1979 song “Silly Games,” mouthing along to the music when suddenly, their voices pierce through. The music fades, and for the next five minutes, the camera pans through the crowd as a chorus of dancers, eyes closed in rapture, sing through the highs and lows of the song. It’s a scene of such intense communal joy that watching it alone on your couch during this time almost feels like a betrayal. The moment is both intimate to the point of voyeurism and grand on a scale that rivals the pompous ceremony of royalty. It’s by far one of the most beautiful and emotional cinematic moments of the year, a perfect climax for one of the 2020’s most interesting and heartfelt films.
Lovers Rock gets its name from the genre of music that permeates its 70-minute run time. “Silly Games” is one of the most famous examples of the kind of reggae that gained popularity in the West Indian London party scene in the mid-to-late 1970s, instantly recognizable by its romantic themes and beats. The song, which reached number 2 on the U.K. Singles Chart in 1979, combines a catchy melody with repetitive lyrics, the kind of track everyone knows the words to. It’s music you’re meant to sway along with, preferably in someone else’s arms.
The closest we get to protagonists are Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, whose name you need to learn STAT) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward), who start out the night as perfect strangers and fall in love as we watch. But the real focus of Lovers Rock is the crowd, the sense of community that arises from feeling like you’re in a safe space, free to move and feel and eat with abandon. Of the five installments in McQueen’s Small Axe series, itself named for a Bob Marley lyric (“We are the small axe/Ready to cut you down), Lovers Rock stands out in its celebratory tone. It’s about a place where Black Londoners can come and celebrate together, without the fear of reprisals or the shame of exclusion.
McQueen told Vulture he based the concept on the “blues parties” he heard about growing up in the 1980s, formed because the West Indian community wasn’t welcome at white clubs. Instead, they threw indoor gatherings, charging a small fee for entry plus extra for beer and homemade delicacies like goat curry.
This is a festive movie, one that makes your stomach pulse with anticipation and your breath catch in your throat. It relies as much on the viewers’ own memories as it does the action unfolding on screen. It takes a moment to wrap one’s brain around a room full of sweaty, happy bodies during this time of social distancing. But once you take a beat and step back from the automatic no-mask panic, the movie provides the opportunity to relive an experience that’s been on hold for nearly a year. Parties? What a concept.
Co-written by Courttia Newland, Lovers Rock also manages to capture the very specific and cherished moments between women as they get ready to go out: The special solidarity of telling your best friend that she needs to change, or fix her hair; the laughter as you pick out the best shade of lipstick, not yet knowing what the night holds; the crisp night air as it blows through your dress with a shiver as you spot the glowing lights ahead.
Inside, Shabier Kirchner’s lens captures the amazing way that the room swells and contracts, as the camera alternates between shots of the crowd before honing in on what’s happening in dark corners. A glimpse of a hand inching down a thigh flows smoothly into a wider shot of a couple leaning up against the wall, zooming in and out in a rhythm that mimics the dance we’re observing on screen.
If the opening shot sees Martha sneaking out of her house — inspired by McQueen’s aunt Molly, whose mother wouldn’t let her attend blues parties — the final scene has her getting on the bus in the morning, running home to get back in time for Sunday church. In other words, the film spans one woman’s entire night, an escape from everyday mundane life into a night of extravagance and mystical mischief. The short run-time feels just right, too, leaving us with the euphoric feeling of a truly good night out — you want more, but as the sun comes up, you’re ready to retreat and spend the day reliving the best parts over and over again.