We all remember those exuberant nights of our youth, partying into the wee hours of the morning only to stumble home as the sun rises, past the sensible, trudging to their jobs and doing things those who caught sleep do. The second episode of Steve McQueen’s new TV series Small Axe is a musical elegy to the blues party scene of the late 1970s that captures all this and more. Only with added romance, better music, and bolder shirts than were included in my teenage years.
Lovers Rock, named after the smoother more romantic style of reggae that was popular at the time, is vastly different in tone to the true story of last week’s episode, whose power lay in its tense retelling of a truly national scandal. Here the story is fictitious, though based on the real trend of these house parties that sprung up for the Black communities, who were excluded from more traditional forms of youthful recreation. The episode often meanders, vast portions almost entirely dialogue free as it cartwheels into expressionistic observations of the rituals of flirtation on the dancefloor. Whilst this may take some getting used to, compared to typical BBC1 Sunday night fare, its radical to see this style on the television.
Our way into the party is Martha, played as wonderfully biting by newcomer Amarah-Jae St Aubyn. Rocking up to the party in her sparkling white pumps with her friend Patty, she soon learns the delights and horrors of what late night experimentation can lead to. Early on she finds the irresistibly cool and charming Franklyn, another knockout performance from Top Boy’s Michael Ward, she breaks up horrific instances of sexual assault and sings along to the anthems of the time. Their chemistry is so damn romantic and exciting you feel that these two really were meant to meet, playfully ribbing each other over their family backgrounds and choices of attire. Speaking of, one of the stars of the episode is the partygoer’s clothing. Grand and sharp, it’s a great throwback without ever feeling kitsch.
The party scenes and its largely fantastic supporting cast are really the focus. One of the most interesting stylistic choices is the use of accent, there are moments the characters drop in and out of their traditional West Indian into a standard British. This gifts the script a theatrical feel, as if these teenagers are reciting Shakespeare for their big night out. A woozy dream that is deliberately shattered when the blunt English accent makes you realise where these kids are. One example of this towards the end really surprised me, making me instantly reassess a certain character.
McQueen and his cinematographer Shabier Kirchner often focus on the roaming hands of the slow dances, all bathed in a fantastic pinkish warm glow. The camera settles during a drawn out yet rather moving acapella rendition of the genre staple Silly Games. The song ends, but the ladies want to carry this moment on forever, treating us to a gospel-like rendition. Later it is the turn of the gents, who mosh and strip shirts to the futuristic dub track Kunta Kinte Dub. These two centrepieces gift Lovers Rock its almost-musical style, which feel relatable to anyone who’s ever thrown themselves into a crowd to some heavy drum and bass or sang along to the most romantic pop song of the time.
A second great addition to the Small Axe series then, and another for McQueen’s impervious filmography. For one night only you get to throw yourself into the sensory pleasure of a real, late 1970s blues party, complete with fantastic wardrobe choices, a varied and dance-worthy playlist, and some cool and passionate lead performances. I think you’d either be lying through your teeth or boring as hell if it didn’t make you want to throw on some dancing shoes and get out on the town.