Lovers Rock is like going to a club night and managing to make it till closing without ever really feeling it. You chat but somehow never say anything. You drink but somehow don’t get drunk. You even dance but somehow never catch the rhythm. Which says a lot since dialogue-free shots of people dancing make up roughly 70% of Lovers Rock’s runtime.
There’s no story here, or at least not one that really drives the film. Rather it is a fly-on-the-wall depiction of a house party in 1980s London hosted by and for the West Indian community. Complete with disc jockey and tuck shop. What passes for a protagonist is Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn’s Marta, an easy-going seventeen-year-old ready to shimmy down her parent’s drainpipe for a good time. Accompanied by best friend Patty who seeks a distraction from her own family baggage (I’m hesitant to describe it as ‘drama’). There Marta meets the charming young Franklin and the two proceed to spend the night together with all the enthusiasm of the last two teenagers able to find someone to snog.
As this review is starting to get a little mean let’s clear things up. Lovers Rock can hardly be described as badly made. Steve McQueen’s depiction of 1980s London is both authentic and romantic. Carrying both a lived-in level of period detail but also an energy and sense of enjoyment. Pumped up by a masterful soundtrack that runs the gamut from Soul to Disco to Ska. St. Aubyn walks a line between rambunctiousness and obedience, a willingness to behave for her family but also a yearning for fun. Giving an endearing presence to Marta, even if it’s under-utilised. All of which possesses an understated quality that makes it relatable. There is nothing special to these people about a night blues music and Red Stripe, it’s simply one of the better parts of their ordinary lives.
That ordinariness feels very much like to point. Of the released films, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series has covered the difficulties faced by the West Indian community. Their literal trials and tribulations and the heroic acts they have performed to overcome them. Like Frank Chrichlow’s ownership of the Mangrove restaurant, the attendees of Lovers Rock show heroism through their mere existence. Through having a space with which to enjoy their culture and their community. They don’t need to face down police raids or challenge mobs to have value. They have value in and of themselves.
However human value is not the same as narrative value and without story or character to hook us into the events its impossible to have an emotional reaction. Things certainly happen over the course of the night. Marta and Franklin’s tepid romance develops as they dance and share the occasional drink, culminating in the promise of something more when they emerge into the daylight. Aside from the occasional interruption though the party more or less goes on as planned. Even the minor events don’t give us enough time to invest in the characters, to relate to their frustrations and embarrassments.
Were it not for the care and craft put into it Lovers Rock, the film could be easily mistaken for a documentary or worse a scripted reality show. An observational look at the ordinary lives of a group of partygoers. But the lack of crucial story elements to engage an audience remind us of the difference between having a good time and watching others have one.