' ' Cinema Romantico: Lovers Rock

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Lovers Rock

It’s a staple of the movies, the reason why there should be an Oscar category honoring the best use of pop music in a film, though I understand that’s neither here nor there, when a director briefly ceases narrative momentum, drops the needle and lets his characters lose it in the music. This happened in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”, when Ron and Patrice briefly found solace from being black in America in 1972 in the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose, and this happened in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon”, when half the unit takes momentary leave from hell through Smokey Robinson. These scenes stand out because they innately capture something fundamental about music: “Routine, responsibility, decay of institutions, corruption: this is all the world closing in,” says Bruce Springsteen. “Music, when it’s really great, pries that shit back open and lets people back in.” Part of the considerable genius of “Lovers Rock”, part 2 of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series for Amazon, an examination of West Indian lives in London, and which I am counting as a movie because I can’t stop dreaming about how it might feel and look on the big screen, is that he sculpts an entire hour-plus out of such sonic amelioration.  

As “Lovers Rock” opens, a couch is being moved into a backyard. Though this briefly suggests moving day, it is merely a reorienting of the home’s communal center, paving the way for a dance party that night. When the dee jay plugs in the chord and turns on the mic, the shot switches to high above, underlining how the music fills up the room. People fill up the room too, later, the afternoon sun giving way to the warmth of a makeshift dance floor, bathed in cool crimson, as ample partygoers move in time to the rhythm, the reggae epitomizing Lovers Rock itself but also hits of the day, like “Kung Fu Fighting.” The latter is a legitimately transcendent moment that treats the song seriously in so much as it provides a genuine snapshot of a cultural moment rather than resorting to parody.

If motion pictures are, as that moniker implies, about movement, these scenes bring that idea to life. That earlier shot from above gives us a sense of the room’s space because from there on out, the camera is close, not so much a fly on the wall as part of the scrum, weaving through the dancers, not in some herky-jerky fashion, either, but fully in the groove, lingering on the people, how they move, how they touch one another, how they throw their heads back in ecstasy, romanticizing the perilous trek any of us might have made during a live show through a crowd, feeling the sweat and the spilled beer, just going with the flow, capturing that paradoxical but perfect juxtaposition between being part of a mass on the dance floor yet simultaneously in your own world. Those two lines blur on Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” when the crowd keeps singing the song even after the song fades away. The Revolutionaries’ “Kunte Kinte”, on the other hand, transforms into an anthem of aggressive release, as if for a moment those perspiration-lined walls threaten to topple.

If there is a point of view it belongs to Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), seen from the street below climbing out her bedroom window and shimmying down a drain pipe to catch a bus where her face momentarily adopts a look of guilt as a man passes by outside dragging a cross, two images denoting her constrictive home life with nary a word. She meets up with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) to hit the house party, joyous dancing by themselves gradually giving way to flirtations from suitors, including Franklyn (Micheal Ward), who wins Martha over. As they grow intimate, however, Patty feels rejected, spurning her friend mid-party by just walking out the door, a moment signaling McQueen’s intriguing approach to resolution – that is, providing none. We never see Patty again. This is not the end or the beginning, just the in-between. And when Martha unsuccessfully tries to chase her friend down, it momentarily leaves her face-to-face with a group of caucasian hooligans. Like Patty’s vanishing act, this group’s braying never amounts to anything. But in the face of the protective, bear-like Doorman (Marcus Fraser), who appears at Martha’s side, you see in a single second the hardened fury of facing down bigotry all your life. That kind of fear even exists among their own ranks, Martha rescuing another woman out back being assaulted, the chilly exterior blues juxtaposed against the orange warmth of the house party’s windows.

Though in many ways “Lovers Rock” is a kind of unconventional musical, it is these dollops of turbulence elevating the film to greatness, putting the music and the outside world in tension with each other, illustrating how the former becomes a reaction, a way of coping with the latter, what the dee jay on the microphone keeps championing as spiritual protection. In one remarkable sequence, Martha’s hot-headed cousin, Clifton (Kedar Williams Stirling), enters the party midway through and immediately falls into a wild argument with his relative. Not long after, he takes the dance floor, swinging his arms wildly, swigging from a bottle of beer, throwing his head back, full of aggression, teetering on the brink of falling apart, perhaps, even as the music itself momentarily grants immunity to what ails him.  

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