There is a movie subgenre known as the “hangout” movie, a type of movie during which not much occurs in the plot. Famous examples of this genre include the 1959 Western “Rio Bravo,” the 1993 coming-of-age flick “Dazed and Confused” and the 2019 industry love-letter “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” The draw of these films comes from the characters and their casual interactions with each other, allowing the audience to chill out with them for two hours. It’s one of the most fun and underrated subgenres of film. Ready to be added to this elite club is “Lovers Rock,” one of an astounding five films Steve McQueen has set for release this year as a part of his Small Axe collection.
“Lovers Rock” focuses on a house party, set in the early 1980s in the underrepresented Caribbean community of London. The title comes from a type of reggae commonly played at these parties, known for its romanticism. The film traverses the course of a single evening, from sundown on Saturday to sun-up early Sunday morning right before church, following a wide cast of characters as they journey through the late-night social scene. It begins with the hosts of the party preparing for the evening, as they move speakers and couches in and out of their flat, dress up for the night and cook food for their guests. The party hits the usual beats of any typical one, with characters spending most of their time dancing or drinking. The entire film is built around small scenes consisting of these moments, often loosely connected, of people moving through and within the house.
The film often meanders between different characters but the main focus remains on Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a young woman who doesn’t know anyone at the party besides her friend. However, over the course of the night, Martha falls in with Franklyn (Michael Ward), who approaches her for a dance. While the narrative arc of the film as a whole is loose, if there were a narrative strand to follow, it would be Martha and Franklyn’s budding relationship. The film does builds to a show-stopping head near the middle of the movie, which revolves around the song “Silly Games” by Janet Kay, a hit of the lovers rock genre in Britain. The song unites everyone on the dance floor, first as they dance to it, and then as they sing an encore after the song’s end. The scene is one of the most powerful and joyous cinematic moments to come from this year, a bittersweet reminder of what we’ve all been during the pandemic.
This, of course, is not the only music in the film. Indeed, almost every minute of this film is filled with music, from the familiar to the obscure. Every frame in “Lovers Rock” pulsates with rhythm and vitality. If it were shown in theaters, it would make for one of the most immersive cinematic experiences, as viewers would feel themselves inside this world. That energy was harder to replicate sitting on my couch with my laptop, but it is still a film lively enough to suck anyone in. One cannot merely follow along, one must live in “Lovers Rock,” for a spirited, engrossing 68 minutes.
This year hasn’t exactly been a banner year for cinema, but a few films salvaged the public and the industry from complete disappointment. “Lovers Rock” is one of those films; a bright star in the dark cinematic firmament that emphatically puts to rest any concerns about the death of cinema. Steve McQueen pulled off something extraordinary — directing five films in a single year, each of which stands strongly on its own, but together comprise one of the most exceptional cinematic achievements in recent memory.