Lovers Rock (BBC One), the second film in Steve McQueen’s five-part Small Axe sequence, takes place over a night and morning in 1980, at a house party in Ladbroke Grove. Co-written by McQueen and Courttia Newland, it’s an almost plotless 70 minutes, built around a single boy-meets-girl arc, between Franklyn (Micheal Ward) and Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, a debut). Yet its world is so convincingly realised that by the end you’ll be sure you were there.
There’s more detail and texture in the first few minutes alone than other directors manage in hours, as the stage is set for the event. At the venue, a rambling old house, men clear furniture to make the dance floor, and obsess over the sound system. Goat curry bubbles away in the cramped kitchen. Martha sneaks out of her devout mum’s house and she and her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) enjoy a raucous top-deck bus ride over. They pay their 50p to the doorman, cross the threshold and see what the night will bring.
For these first- and second-generation West Indian immigrants, who were denied access to white clubs, the party has the special importance of a haven, a temporary fortress against a white London that is at best indifferent to them and often openly hostile. Here they can speak in patois, dance, drink, smoke weed, be themselves. The only white characters are on the fringes: a boss, a bus conductor, a group of aggressive young men in the street. Their presence is never welcome, and there are none at the party, which isn’t to say that the event isn’t fraught with its own tensions, chiefly the dapper but predatory Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby), who stalks the room like a lion.
Stories beyond the house’s walls are hinted at rather than made explicit. Martha might be Jamaican but she’s also definitely and at times defiantly British, and has no truck with some of the more retrograde machismo on display. Ward’s Franklyn is suaver, confident but not overbearing. Instead of the usual story beats, there are songs, played out in long takes, with the camera roaming freely around the dance floor. “Kung Fu Fighting”, to warm everyone up at the start. At the climax, “Kunta Kinte” by The Revolutionaries, which ends with the men flailing around in topless abandon, sweat falling from the walls. Most memorably, Janet Kay’s “Silly Games”, for an extraordinary five-minute sequence in the middle, which ends with everyone singing acapella after the music stops, lost in the moment.
The rest of the soundtrack is impeccable, as you’d expect – Sister Sledge, The Investigators, Gregory Isaacs. More surprising is the amount of religion. Christianity is a physical presence and a metaphor. The walls of Martha’s house are adorned with crucifixes, and we glimpse a man carrying a large cross across town. With the sun up on Sunday morning Martha has to leave Franklyn to be home in time for Mass. From the previous hour’s proof of the redemptive, transporting power of music and community, it’s clear there is more than one kind of church. Wouldn’t it be nice to go to a party?