Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 17, 2020 8:47 pm 
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A celebration staged - then watched

Lovers Rock, the opening night film of the 58th New York Film Festival, is an hour-plus television series episode that is part of McQueen's five-part "Small Axe" anthology that premieres on BBC One later this year and in the US on Amazon Prime.

Lovers Rock is nearly zero as a story - boy meets girl, they dance all night, take dawn bike ride, girl sneaks into house in time to go to church - but as a staged event it is enormous, a West Indian soul-reggae house party dance night that Peter Bradshaw, who gives it five out of five stars in a Guardian review, calls "the best party ever." He accurately says "everything and nothing" happens and notes most of this 68-minute film, co-scripted by McQueen with writer-musician Courttia Newland, designed by Helen Scott and (mainly?) shot by Shabier Kirchner, would be a five-minute sequence in a regular film. Dennis Lim, the Film at Lincoln Center Program Director, in a Zoom-style interview with McQueen, suggests this is more like one of the short art films he made before he got started on features, the chronicling of a process-event. I came to scoff (not a fan of McQueen coming into it), but I became a convert. This is a rich, lush, enveloping event. It's alive. It's young sexy blackness as you've never seen it caught on film.

But Bradshaw is also right in calling it a "novella," because it has characters and mini-backstories to burn ("everything") - only they're brief and sketchy ("nothing"). McQueen told Lim this remarkably rich "staged" event was (became) a real party; it would have happened (gone on, and on and on) whether the camera was there or not; he felt "invited," and (he said this two or three times) "it was euphoric." In a way all but Michael Ward and Franklyn and Amarah-Jae St Augin as Martha, the couple the camera follows out into the night-into-morning at the end, are extras. but they are extras who are stars in their own right, starring in their own movie, living their own party, and they give their all. McQueen just had to "know when to step back" - and watch and let it happen. Self-indulgent? Yes, but no, because he frames it so beautifully.

The time is 1980. The setting is set in Ladbroke Grove, west London, over a single evening at a house party in the summertime. The people are mostly West Indian first or second generation men and women. Blacks weren't really welcome at London dance clubs, which had quotas for them, and so they made their own do-it-yourself clubs, for themselves. They took a living room, filled it with a humongous set of speakers, and charged a 50p entry fee at the door, extra for food and drink from the kitchen. Men dressed up in tight bell bottoms and fancy dress jackets with eventful hats; women wore fancy, slinky dresses they or their own had made for them. McQueen, who calls this a "blues party," is drawing on the experience of his own parents here, and a female relative whose father left the door open so she could sneak back in after a dance party in the morning, just as Martha (St Aubin) does here, to deceive her religious mother and go to church with her Sunday morning. All this is there, starting with the dragging in of the speakers and setting up of the table to play the vinyl, and dragging of the sofas into the back yard for private, more romantic interludes by couples during the night.

The music is enveloping. The atmosphere is sexy, and sexier as the night wears on. The music is lover’s rock, soul and reggae. Lovers rock is a thing, a "largely underground phenomenon," London black reggae emphasizing women's feelings, a genre that went global, a Guardian article Bradshaw references explains, but went largely unrecognized at home and faded away.

I don't know how period-authentic all the gestures are, but McQueen says they avoid gestures that aren't. One is the way the men grab the women's elbow, then slide it down to their hand, asking for a dance. Did men drink bottled beer while dancing? I guess they did. They light a lot of nice long thin spliffs, and the women smoke cigarettes, innocent highs. It seemed like some of the men were very predatory, but it's interesting how they cloak it in an air of chivalry and flowery compliments. Martha comes in with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), who disappears early on. Martha runs out after her but can't find her, and, with a group of white men approaching her, quickly withdraws back into the party room. Apparently Patty is miffed that Franklyn has settled on Martha and not her. Or she didn't get the man she longed for.

At one point there's a moment in a bedroom with two women sitting on a bed kissing.

A remarkable and lovely moment comes - though in conventional terms, like everything else, it goes on too long, when the music stops and the entire crowd sings the Janet Kay song "Silly Games," a cappella. It's the kind of thing you'd absolutely insist had to be staged, and it apparently wasn't. McQueen says this just happened, he had nothing do do with it. It's climactic, but there's much, much more. Remember in Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark part of the show-offy single take is the ballroom full of elegant costumed dancers with the Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev conducting, and at the end the camera comes back to them, and they're still dancing? You imagine those dancers, dancing hour after hour for the camera. This is like that, only the dancers are having a hell of a good time. And at the end the music gets faster, and they get crazy, and the screen is full of figures jumping and jiving, leaping and down on the floor waggling their arms and legs.

Before she goes home Franklyn takes Martha to the garage where he works, to make out, to entertain her in privacy. But his young white boss comes in, all unexpected, because it's Sunday morning, and chews him out and says, "You don't bring your Doris here!" At this point, Franklyn drops his Jamaican lilt he's bee speaking in all night and talks to the young white guy in more "multicultural London," a bland of cockney. Was the Jamaican a fake? No, it was probably his first language. This is only a hint of the depth and richness of this remarkable film's cultural and social detail. As I said I came to scoff, and I admit I did feel bored in the middle of it, feeling it was going on much, much too long, which it does by normal standards. But I was swept away in the deep soul vibe and, the warm eroticism, and the fantastic go-for-broke in-character lived performances of the ensemble. As an opening night film, in a real not virtual NYFF, this would have worked unusually well. It's engaging, energetic, upbeat, and unique. How great it would have been on the Walter Reade Theater's great sound system and big screen.

Lovers Rock, 68 mins., episode of McQueen's five-part "Small Axe" anthology series for BBC (two othes also included in the NYFF) watched in virtual form as part of the New York Film Festival, for which it was the Opening Night film.


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