A drop of sweat, taken up close and glistening, winds slowly along a golden wall. The music playing in the background is also unhurried. His rock lovers, reggae with a romantic impulse, and the hall is full of young people who have come to dance the night away. And they’re in a movie: Steve McQueen’s Rock lovers, which debuts Nov. 27 on Amazon Prime, the second of five episodes in McQueen’s masterful anthology series about London’s West Indian communities.
Rock lovers lasts 70 minutes, but it feels like it lasts all night, in a good way. Time slows down in a movie like this. Although this is apparently a story about a young woman named Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), who meets Franklyn (Micheal Ward) at a house party in the early 1980s, it is is more of an experience than a film, more immersive than narrative.
Most of what is subversive Rock lovers never makes it to the foreground, but the title shows McQueen’s hand. Young dancers, prowlers, and movie lovers are in a house, not a club, because the all-white nightclubs of the time were not friendly to them. The musical genre from which the film takes its name emerged in the 1970s as a departure from other reggae, in that it put forward the desire of women, the experience of women, the passion of women. He resisted the patriarchal attitudes that often underlie the music scene, and by centering romance he became subtly political. Artists from Lauryn Hill to Drake to Rihanna have worked within the structures and styles of rock lovers.
Rock lovers translates these attitudes and themes into vibrations, leaving Martha to escape a strict religious family and break free for a while. It’s not a carefree world; At one point, Martha intervenes when she discovers a man trying to assault a young woman he’s lured out of the party. She argues with Franklyn; she has a tiff with her best friend, Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). It is not heaven in this house.
But it is an oasis. The bigger scene comes halfway, when the DJ plays Janet Kay’s hit 1979 single, “Silly Games,” one of the most famous rock songs for lovers. Rock lovers takes place a few years after the song hits its peak, and the whole crowd knows it word for word. The song is five minutes long and plays in its entirety, Kay’s voice slowly creeping up until it hits a high note at the end. McQueen lets it all roll. The dancers groove and squeak; it looks like they’re dancing in slow motion. And when the song is over, the crowd starts singing it again, from the start, a cappella, still dancing.
The entire scene is 10 minutes long, and this is just one of many long sequences. Rock lovers. He dares the impassive spectator, perched on his sofa, to let go of the fourth wall and to stand up and dance.
That’s the power of a movie: to speed up time or slow it down, or make it run at the same speed as our own time, daring us to synchronize. There is something a little unsettling about watching a movie like this. We’re so used to leaning over the barrier, the fiction that we put in between us and what’s happening on the screen – sitting down and quietly judging it, munching on popcorn.
But something about an extended dance scene takes us out of that bubble. Jonathan Demme – one of the greatest directors of all time, who is celebrated in particular for his concert films – harnessed that power and let it rip in the third act of 2008 Rachel is getting married, a film about a young woman named Kym (played by Anne Hathaway) broke down at her sister’s wedding. His sister Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt) marries record producer Sidney, who is played by television on radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe. Their wedding is full of musicians and music erupts after the ceremony and everyone starts dancing. From Mrs asked the musicians improvise the music on the set, following their mood rather than a preset composition, and the result is vibrant and irresistible.
The dance comes at the end of a film full of bitterness and family strife, so its joy is shadowed and colored by all the pain – and maybe that’s what makes it so meaningful. Everything is hard and people often hurt and hurt each other. But there’s something we’ve always done, as a species, to fight back. And on the screen, the characters invite us to join in both their pain and their exaltation.
Whenever this kind of extended dance scene appears in a movie – with diegetic music that thrills the characters and asks us to listen to the full song with them – the result is intoxicating. In 2020, such scenes popped up a bit, whether it was Kate Lyn Sheil in She dies tomorrow like despondent Amy, listening to a requiem over and over as she gets lost in her house, or lone dancers losing their minds alone across Europe in the short, shining Strasbourg 1518. The next movie Another round, with Mads Mikkelsen, presents several exhilarating dance sequences where middle-aged men sway, jump and whirl, losing themselves and their adult pain and bitterness in the music. In the third episode of Damien Chazelle’s Netflix series The whirlwind, which kicked off in May, a Parisian funeral filled with jazz musicians goes from dark to electrifying; the episode ranges from storytelling to the full memorial celebration.
In all of these cases, the normal rhythm of cinema – which cuts and moves from scene to scene, cramming days, weeks, and years into hours – grows to match the rhythm of our own time off screen. And that can be confusing. If making a film allows the director to manipulate time and reality, it also allows him to suddenly make us feel our place in time. And there’s no better way to do this than with a long, languid streak of music and dance that we can drag into ourselves.
Rock lovers is easily one of the best movies of 2020, and by the end of the movie, you’ll be surprised that only 70 minutes have passed; sort of feels like it’s a lot more, but in the best way. This year has bent us all towards isolation and bitterness, towards endless monotony somehow mixed with a daily parade of horrors. There have been far fewer opportunities to get lost in the music, to sweat and breathe alongside other bodies and to know that we are alive.
Sometimes, therefore, it helps to delve deep into the pictures, rhythms and rhythm of a film that knows a great truth: all eternity, joy and pain, can be squeezed – a sparkling pearl of sweat and happiness – in one perfect dance party.
Rock lover, the second of five installments in Steve mcqueen Small ax anthology, will be released on Amazon Prime on November 27.