REVIEW: Small Axe – Lovers Rock (NYFF 2020)
British director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave, Widows) has a new 5-part series coming to the BBC and Amazon Prime in late November/early December of this year. The unusual step has been taken for three of the five parts to be selected for the Cannes, New York and London Film Festivals, prompting what will probably be months of speculation as to whether they are TV episodes or films and whether they will be eligible for Oscars or Emmys. The first part – Mangrove – is certainly feature-length, at over two hours. Small Axe is based on real-life events in the West Indian community in London between the late 60s and early 80s. The series is also notable for giving ‘meaty’ roles to Letitia Wright (best known for Marvel’s Black Panther) and John Boyega (best known for the Star Wars sequel trilogy).
The title Small Axe comes from a line in a Bob Marley and The Wailers song “Small Axe” from the album “Burnin’” (1973): “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe” and was already a known proverb in the Caribbean. It’s also a homophone for small acts – which could represent the daily microaggressions and police harassment that the Black community experience, especially in the era depicted and the daily acts of resistance and resilience they must conjure up from a seemingly bottomless well of strength. Of course, this has a cumulative effect and as can be seen in Mangrove, eventually reaches a breaking point.
Lovers Rock is the shortest of the three, at just over one hour, and while both Mangrove and Red, White and Blue deal with institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police, Lovers Rock is a little burst of (almost) pure joy. Set on one night in 1980 at a house party, the film invites us right into the centre of the action to partake in the music and dancing and is one of the most visceral viewing experiences of the year. It’s hard not to view everything through the lens of the pandemic at the moment, but it’s extremely hard to watch Lovers Rock, with its long, lingering shots of sweaty bodies …um… extremely close to one another and not feel a mixture of recoiling in horror, mixed with longing to be able to experience such a thing again.
The centrepiece of Lovers Rock comes right in the middle, in an audacious ten minute sequence set to Janet Kay’s 1979 hit Silly Games. Firstly, the record is played by the DJ while everyone dances, then the music cuts out and everyone at the party continues singing the lyrics acapella, still rhythmically dancing, stomping their feet and keeping in perfect time. The atmosphere is electric, the walls are sweating and what with the friction generated from man-made fabrics being repeatedly rubbed against one another, it’s a wonder the room doesn’t burst into flames.
The music throughout is phenomenal, with the soul, disco and ska soundtrack filtered through the DJs’ freestyling and Kung Fu Fighting is another highlight. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event – there will be other parties, but this exact one, with this mix of people listening to this mix of music can never be replicated. The camerawork on the dancefloor is expertly intimate, absolutely ensuring that the audience feels in the midst of the claustrophobic confusion and as the energy ramps towards the end of the party, it feels a bit like you’re in a tumble-dryer.
The central two figures are Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) and Franklyn (Michael Ward). Martha has snuck out of her bedroom, throwing her white shoes first, so as not to make too much noise or scuff them on the way down the drainpipe. Her hair is done in the Farrah Fawcett Flick style and her shiny, sparkly purple dress is on point. Franklyn seems kind and gentle, unlike some of the other more predatory men at the party. They share a magical night and then Martha gets a lift home on Franklyn’s bike in the morning’s light. Reality starts to set in when they stop off at the garage where Franklyn works and his white boss (who seems younger than him) talks to him in a derogatory manner. There is certainly the sense that the party (for most of the party-goers) has been a safe haven and welcome distraction from the kind of events depicted in Mangrove and Red, White and Blue.
Lovers Rock doesn’t have some of the big-name actors of the other two parts of Small Axe which are playing festivals, but that is part of its charm. The characters embody a fresh-faced youth and vitality, they are seizing the night and we are witness to the birth of a burgeoning young love. It’s hard not to be seduced by such a sweet and simple story and to feel like you’ve been welcomed into the midst of a house party or onto a dancefloor for one night only, something that many of us are yearning for at the moment (it doesn’t matter if you haven’t been to a house party in years, THIS will make you miss them). Lovers Rock is a succinct slice of early 80s music, fashion and Black culture and it’s exhilarating to experience these silly games right now.