The five films of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” play like a series of sketches of what we can take to be his experiences growing up in the ’70s and early ’80s among the Caribbean islanders transplanted to the Big Island of Britain.
The series take its title from a Bob Marley song, which declares “So if you are the big tree, We are the small axe Ready to cut you down.” Visit Britain, sample its post-immigration cuisine, culture, music and dress and you get the metaphor.
The films share settings and some characters, but each is a stand-alone in style and theme. “Lovers Rock” is the impressionistic, free-flowing romance and music film of the series, McQueen’s camera tracking through a cover-charge house party circa 1980. It’s immersive, at times almost giddy — with more than a hint of the racial and sexual tensions of the day (and today) packed into its 70 minutes.
We see the prep for the party, the cooking (do NOT watch this hungry), the moving of furniture, the set-up of the sound system with the DJ practicing his rhymed proto-rap patter.
We see the neighborhood primping and dressing up, ready for the night, warily eyed by the white neighbors still living in this corner of what we assume is Brixton, then and now a Little Jamaica in South London.
As the cooks sing Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” two young women getting dressed chime in with Blondie’s “Sunday Girl.”
“Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up and wait…”
And we meet friends Martha (Amarah Jae St. Aubyn) and Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) as they dress for this Saturday night do like it’s prom night, blending in with the vast crowd, dancing and drinking and sometimes eating.
One running thread through “Lovers Rock” is the incessant to the point of RELENTLESS come-ons from the menfolk there. Every young woman in the place has to fend off advances — most pretty aggressive by today’s standards — just to dance or have a conversation or get into the damned restroom.
At least they’re flirting in that lovely Jamaican patois, that is as entertaining and musical as any variation of spoken English on the planet.
“Wha’yo pappa CALL you, gorgeous? Me a GENTLEman–gentleMAN.”
That one doesn’t work on Martha. But Franklyn (Michael Ward) is intent on figuring out what does.
During the course of the night, nothing happens that we haven’t seen in a hundred other “House Party” movies. It’s the dreadlocked culture and setting that sets the various “Small Axe” films apart, that and McQueen’s polished, ultra-realistic handling of the material. The movies themselves are genre pieces and not the least bit surprising.
But “Lovers Rock” is the most charming — the enthusiastic sing-alongs that go on after the sound system has switched on, the energetic, near-frenzied dancing, men peacocking for the ladies, the women acting underwhelmed.
The message here is that this diaspora — many characters are second generation Brits, like Martha — has adapted, how they fused reggae and disco and soul and house parties into courtship rituals that might have been meat-market messy, but they sure were fun.
And if you want to see how McQueen (“Twelve Years a Slave”) does “giddy,” check out the camera that dances through a near-full-length dance to “Kung-Fu Fighting.”
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, drug abuse, profanity
Cast: Amarah Jae St. Aubyn, Michael Ward, Kedar Williams-Sterling and Shaniqua Okwok.
Credits: Created and directed by Steve McQueen, script by Courttia Newland and Steve McQueen. A BBC Films release on Amazon.
Running time: 1:10