Thursday, June 24, 2021

In the Reels: “Lovers Rock” opens the New York Film Festival

By Cameron Kaercher

Though the current pandemic has been shutting down a lot of opportunities for individuals to come together in person, entertainment venues have been experimenting with virtual events.

The 58th annual New York Film Festival has opened up to the public through online screenings, as well as drive-in screenings for those who live in New York City. While this is far from a traditional platform, the festival remains as lively as ever with world premieres, restorations and talks with some of the most exciting filmmakers working today.

The festival’s opening night, Sept. 17, screening was Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock.” Set over the course of one night in 1970s West London, the story captures a small microcosm that forms at a fictional house blues party. At the core, is a romance between Martha, played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, and Franklyn, played by Michael Ward. The supporting cast is rounded out with Samson the DJ, played by Kadeem Ramsay, Martha’s friend Patty, played by Shaniqua Okwok, and “smooth guy” Bammy, played by Daniel Francis-Swaby.

With all those memorable characters being set up, co-writers Courttia Newland and McQueen’s real goal was to capture a group feeling rather than a specific story. The majority of the 68-minute runtime is spent walking through the house party’s location, watching people enjoy themselves. About halfway through the film, it reaches a transcendental peak as the crowd sings along to “Silly Games” by Janet Kay as the record spins, and long after the song runs out. It is a beautiful celebration of the unifying power music can have within any group.

In a post-screening Q&A session with McQueen and Director of Programming for NYFF Dennis Lim, the director of “Lovers Rock” said he wanted the film to be “about every single sense: taste, smell, sound…” and that it was a “celebration of the black aesthetic.” Those goals are easily achieved, and it may have been exactly what the filmmaker has needed.

McQueen’s previous feature films have dealt with issues such as slavery in “12 Years a Slave”, nymphomania in “Shame”, and the prisoner abuse in Northern Ireland that led to the hunger strike, by Bobby Sands, “Hunger.” They are all-powerful works that prove McQueen is one of the best filmmakers working today. His heist-thriller “Widows” is criminally underrated, but you can not sit down one afternoon and throw one on.

This isn’t to say that “Lovers Rock” is devoid of any tension or drama. A threatening group of white men hanging out down the road serves as a glass of cold water to the face through their obscenities. Their presence is then subverted as the story turns its back on them. This is a party, and they do not deserve any more screen time.

As an opening night event for the New York Film Festival, this is a fantastic film. The performances are naturalistic, the cinematography is lush, and the reggae soundtrack is perfectly curated. It is a shame it isn’t being screened in theaters, but one should feel lucky to experience a work this well realized.

“Lovers Rock” is one of five films that makes up the “Small Axe” anthology. The group of films also tackles structural racism in the police force and the 1970 landmark Mangrove Nine trial. The first installment of “Small Axe,” called “Mangrove,” will premiere on Amazon Prime Nov. 20. If it is half as good as “Lovers Rock,” it will be a must watch.

 

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