New York Film Fest 2020 Review: A Night to Remember in a Forgotten Time in Steve McQueen’s Exuberant “Lovers Rock”

There’s a moment in “Lovers Rock” when the whole world disappears, most specifically for Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), the young woman you see climbing down the drainpipe of her parents’ house in the dead of night to attend a party down the street, but for everyone else Steve McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland generously let in to the two-story house where the sound of reggae wafts through the air, extending a hand out to dance even if you find yourself unable to step through the screen. Set in 1980 as part of the five-part anthology series “Small Axe,” the film finds the young Jamaicans of London’s West Indian neighborhood blowing off steam on a Saturday night and although getting past the doorman at the makeshift club offers escapism enough, when the 45 of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” eventually comes to an end, those gathered keep on singing, lost in a moment of pure joy that McQueen admirably refuses to cut away from.

Sustainability is on the mind of McQueen throughout “Lovers Rock” where you see something has really been built by the community, even if the house itself is temporary, when the camera finds its way in the afternoon of the party where a trio of women is making goat curry for sale later that evening downstairs and a pair of men move a sound system upstairs, with costs being covered by a small fee at the door. They may not own place, but it becomes theirs quickly, and the efficiency created by the unity of purpose is immediately striking, but then again, so is the division between the separate stories where the men are playing prerecorded music on the top floor and the women can be heard to sing as they cook with no vinyl needed below. Once the evening starts off, it’s the ladies who take the dance floor while the men mostly stand off to the side and smoke.

A mix starts to develop once Martha meets Franklyn (Micheal Ward), conspicuously apologizing for his friend Reggie (Francis Lovehall) who has been crude to her and her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), and you recognize how special it is when they start to lose themselves in each other when little breadcrumbs are left to show how much fixation there is on their identity, whether it’s the Catholic parents that Martha sneaks out on, the white boys down the block who pose a threat any time they’re bothered to look up from their cigarettes or ultimately from one another as the opposite sex, no matter how close they can seem at times. There is a wolf let loose in the house in the form of Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby), who has to set his sights on someone else once Martha rejects his advances, but lifting the weight of the world for a night proves to be the greatest concern for McQueen and as “Bull” cinematographer Shabier Kirchner moves about the room in such a way that one can easily sway and just give into the music, in addition to the lovely and vibrant period detail of costumes supervised by Jacqueline Durran and Helen Scott’s production design, “Lovers Rock” becomes the respite we all need right now.

“Lovers Rock” will screen physically at the New York Film Festival on September 17th at 8 pm at the Queens Drive-in and 9 pm at Brooklyn Drive-In and September 23rd at 8 pm at the Bronx Drive-In and virtually on September 17 for a four-hour window starting at 8 pm EST and from October 3rd at 8 pm EST to October 5th at 8 pm EST.

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