The second instalment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is a masterclass in visual storytelling. McQueen and his crew take us to a house party in the early 80s, showing us the setup and the narrative of night, while also interweaving a love story.
There is very little dialogue here, and what does exist is natural and conversational. The film threads a narrative out of everyday interaction, weaving a tale through filmmaking and direction rather than exposition. The highlight here is the cinematography, as Shabier Kirchner’s camera bends to the rhythms of the film in delightful and inventive ways. At the start, we have the party being setup and the narrative is told through focused closeups on process. The camera even moves with the apparatus: sliding across as cable are stretched out; tilting downwards as amplifiers leave vans. There is a sense of tactility to everything that highlights the ceremonial importance of what is going on here. Intimate photography establishes this as a labour of love.
The heart of the film is the party itself. This lengthy sequence is a real feat of direction. Realism is sold in every frame but it is also beautifully cinematic. In addition to this, there is such a fluid and clear narrative built through the whole sequence, where characters are built and conflicts are teased, and either happen or are defused. Lovers Rock manages to create a story about individual characters, a number of key players being evoked that we primarily follow, while keeping the overall focus on the collective. The party is its own things; its own world and its own character. This same party also shifts and changes, in a natural way, developing as the aesthetic develops alongside it.
The real joy here is in how you are placed in the party. What is impressive, though, is how the film manages to show the tunnel vision of partygoers while keeping you consistently aware of the issues and constraints that exits on the edges – the dangers of the real world. An overwhelming, intoxicating joy defines the film, but the horror of the wider world still exist – the sceptre of racism subtly, but powerfully, evoked at several points. The overall feel is that the viewer is a welcome guest, privy to the sights and sounds but at all points an observer.
The camera is placed in the thick of things, the composition perfect so that the dancing and movement always extends beyond the frame. There is also a nostalgic orange glow that surrounds the dance floor, this adds beauty but also conveys the subjective sense that the dance floor is where the world ends. This subjectivity is mastered throughout. A slow dance is marked by a gliding, sensuous camera. There are closeups on bodies pressed against each other but the gaze never feels voyeuristic, it feels intimate. The camera’s eye seems to follow the minds of the characters, once again immersing you in a space the only way cinema can. And, as the party evolves, dynamics change.
Two standout moments are a capella sequences at bookending points of the night. The first is a romantic song belted out, primarily, by women. Heads raise skywards and the camera focuses on jubilant faces. There is an overwhelming joy here. Later, the men dominate the dance floor as the music transitions away from romance. The cinematography is still in the midst of the party but now the previously fluid camera jerks around and occasionally loses focus. The mood has shifted and then the group (almost all men) start to chant. There is still such energy but the feeling is totally different, in a way that speaks volumes about different social experiences and the mentalities of different crowds.
The party is not without major events, there are a few heavy sequences – one extremely so (in which the aftermath could be more focused on but just enough is done) – but the main focus is on the vibe. The is transportive cinema. We follow a character and there’s a clear narrative through-line, that ends beautifully, but the story is the story of a party. Because parties have stories; they have ebbs and flows and uncertainty. They prickle with unpredictability but are softened by expectations – certain things always go a certain way. In this film, we are taken to a specific time and a specific place and are allowed to exist there. The result is glorious and has moments of sheer bliss, but the film is clever enough to be aware of the sharp edges that nostalgia dulls down. Even the best of times are tainted and dangerous, especially for certain groups, but that doesn’t mean we have to forget the joy.