This magical 68 minutes of delirious cinema is the second of Steve McQueen’s five film series Small Axe. Each film tells a story about ‘West Indian’ characters and communities in London during the period 1968-1982. Lovers Rock has the simplest narrative of the series and is written by McQueen with the novelist Courttia Newland. A group of friends are preparing a large house and garden to host a birthday ‘blues party’ for a young woman. Meanwhile, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a young woman from a church-going family, is planning to sneak out of the family house to attend the party with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). I write ‘meanwhile’ but actually these two sequences are not happening at the same time. Martha leaves her house under darkness but the preparations for the dance are in daylight. This is the first indication that this isn’t going to be a conventional narrative. Though there are some of the familiar conventions of a ‘party narrative’ such as unwanted guests (who have to negotiate the doorman) and the boy meets girl scenario, the central sequence of the film features an extended playing of Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’, the iconic song of the music style known as ‘Lovers Rock’.
We first get introduced to ‘Silly Games’ as a song sung a capella by the women in the kitchen making the party food – goat curry and ackee and saltfish. Cynthia, the birthday girl is getting ready upstairs and hair is being straightened as the sound system is wired up. As the party gets into full swing and the main room fills with dancers, ‘Silly Games’ plays through with many dancers singing along. When the track ends the dancers keep singing and in one corner of the room is an older man. He’s played by Dennis Bovell who wrote and produced the original single, a hit in 1979 (although Discogs suggests it was first released in 1977). Bovell has claimed that he included the very high note in the song because he knew girls on the dancefloor would compete to hit it. That’s what happens and indeed from the reviews I’ve seen the idea is taking off with a suggestion that people might meet (virtually?) to sing ‘Silly Games’ together.
A note about terminology
I’ve used the term ‘West Indians’ to describe the characters in this film. I think this was correct in the late 1970s but it was gradually replaced by the term Afro-Caribbean and then African-Caribbean. I’m not sure when these changes took place. There was initially a distinct gap in the 1960s and 1970s between ‘Africans’ and ‘West Indians’ in the UK which took some time to close over the next twenty or thirty years as the number of migrants from different parts of Africa increased. (Some of the distance seems to have been created by West Indian parents with views about Africans perhaps derived from the colonial education system pre-the 1960s). One of the aims of political activism and indeed of the designation ‘Black’ was to develop a solidarity with all people of colour who faced the institutional and personal racism prevalent in the UK. But there were also distinctions between the different parts of the Caribbean, not so damaging perhaps but important in terms of cultural differences. Steve McQueen has Grenadian and Trinidadian heritage. He was born in 1969 in London and the five films that comprise Small Axe are ‘personal’ stories based on events and experiences recounted by relatives and family friends, supported by extensive research to present this period in a realist way. At the end of the 1970s the West Indian community in London and other major cities in the UK included the first generation of migrants (the ‘Windrush generation’) who arrived as adults and became part of the new employment programmes sponsored by the UK government to meet labour shortages, especially in public services. Some of the children of this generation followed their parents at a later date and then a second generation was born in the 1960s and 1970s. In the wider Black community there were both African migrants (often refugees or exiles) and the much earlier communities of Black people established in the UK since the 18th century and earlier (such as the Liverpool Black community). In the first Small Axe film, Mangrove, the popular music of Trinidad and Grenada was featured but by the time of Lovers Rock, Jamaican music in the form of reggae is beginning to dominate for young people, even though the setting here is still in West London. The house where the party is staged is on Ladbroke Road, not far from the Mangrove Restaurant but nearer to Holland Park and the wealthier end of the area. I don’t know if this is a deliberate location choice.
The central section of the film focuses on the dance floor and although there is some narrative progression. Martha meets Franklin (Micheal Ward) and they dance together. But the section is dominated by music and images of dancing in a more abstract way – an attempt by McQueen and his cinematographer Shabier Kirchner to marry the camerawork to the rhythms of the dancing perhaps. Kirchner is from Antigua and has recently been working on independent projects in the US and developing ideas for his own films. It is in this long dance sequence that he really makes his mark in Lovers Rock. The whole sequence featuring ‘Silly Games’ lasts for ten minutes with the extensive a capella section seemingly spontaneous. Kirchner and McQueen offer us a hot sweaty room full of men and women in colourful outfits dancing, in some cases, groin to groin with hands roaming freely. It is both a joyous and erotic scene with a strong sense of solidarity but also a tremor of something dangerous beneath, like most such dancing. After this Martha finds herself involved in two separate altercations. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’m not going to discuss these. All I’ll say is that one incident has been the focus for several critics. Back on the ‘dancefloor’, ‘Silly Games’ has been followed by darker, heavier sounds in the form of dub and ‘roots reggae’ and the feel shifts from female-centred to male-centred solo dancing. The men dance wildly and with a sense of abandon. Again Kirchner’s camera roams freely and picks up the energy of the room. The sequence lasts seven or eight minutes, so two dance sequences in the film take up more than a quarter of the film’s total running time of around 68 minutes.
It’s worth pointing out that the late 1970s into the early 1980s saw young Black people in London become interested in a wide range of different popular and roots music forms. McQueen appears to have commissioned Mica Levi, whose work graced such film as Under the Skin (UK 2013) and Jackie (Chile-France-US 2016). I haven’t yet worked out/discovered what her contribution was since I don’t remember a score as such in the film and all the music appeared to be diegetic – sung by cast members or from discs, cassettes etc. Having said that the music is skilfully woven through the action and that must be down to editor Chris Dickens and Levi as well as McQueen.
I enjoyed Lover’s Rock very much. I have never attended a blues party but in this period many of my students probably did and I did collect some of the tracks used in the film. I am very impressed by the research done by McQueen and his team, including the young actors to recreate an evening like this. The performances of the film’s leads are very good indeed and the whole cast is impressive. The film works on many levels but for me it feels like a simple genre idea that has been developed almost into a piece of art cinema in relation to the dancing. I was also reminded of some 1980s Black British films, especially Burning an Illusion (1981) by Menelik Shabazz, a film which deals with a relationship between a lower middle-class young woman and a working-class young man. (Burning an Illusion is available on DVD and streaming on BFI Player.) It is a much more developed narrative than Lovers Rock but the two films share several elements. Menelik Shabazz later made a documentary about the musical genre with The Story of Lovers Rock in 2011. The ‘preparations for a party’ are featured in at least one of the avant-garde films produced by Sankofa, Passion of Remembrance (1986). Sankofa was a group of five filmmakers, three of whom were women – Maureen Blackwood, Martina Attille and Nadine Marsh-Edwards – and their films presented a range of perspectives on the lives of young Black women in London. I’d really like to hear what they thought of Small Axe.
Kalpana is unique. There has never been a film like it since its release in 1948 and it is unlikely we will see anything similar in the future. The title means ‘Imagination’ in English and what goes into the film is staggering – direct political statements, all the dances and much of the music of India – and a story too. The film took several years of work by its creator Uday Shankar and acts as a form of autobiography for the artist-dancer. Uday Shankar was born in 1900 into a Bengali family. His father was a barrister who had studied at Oxford as well as Calcutta and Uday travelled with him to Europe in the 1920s where he met and worked with leading Russian and British dancers and where he studied art in London and Rome. Uday’s project came to be the incorporation of aspects of European dance as they appeared on the theatrical stage into the classical and folk dance forms of India. He toured Europe and North America as both a dancer and choreographer. (His younger brother, Ravi Shankar joined him on tour as a teenager – later Ravi became famous in his own right as a musician and composer.) In 1938 Uday opened an arts centre in Northern India in the foothills of the Himalayas to which he invited leading dancers, musicians and filmmakers such as a young Guru Dutt. The centre lasted just four years before the funds ran out. It was at this point that Uday headed south to the Gemini Studios in Madras to make Kalpana.
Uday Shankar spent many years making Kalpana in Madras. The film was made in Hindi, but for five years another feature was being made in the Gemini Studios in Tamil that included spectacular dance and action sequences and which has been seen as ‘borrowing’ ideas from Shankar’s filming. Chandralekha, the first Indian film to receive a genuine ‘all India distribution’ (in Tamil with subtitles) in 1948 was a massive hit, but Kalpana was a flop at the box office and Uday Shankar made no more films. We are able to see Kalpana today because of the World Cinema Foundation and its restoration project. The restoration was completed at Bologna in 2012 and very grateful we all should be.
When Kalpana is described as a ‘dance film’ it means that this a film about dance and with a story told through dance. The narrative is told as a long imagined film narrated by a writer trying to sell a script to a producer. The story is about a visionary dancer (played by Uday Shankar himself) and his struggle to fulfil his dreams. The scenes detailing his childhood and early attempts to stage his shows are dealt with so quickly and with such economy they become almost surreal. Shankar sets up a narrative in which there are two women competing for his love. One is played by Shankar’s wife Amala and that narrative plays on melodrama coincidence. The other woman he meets during a storm in the countryside and both women will follow him when he sets up his arts centre in the Himalayas. Hanging over him all through is the accidental death of an impresario. The sexual rivalry and the threat of prosecution are played expressively in the dance sequences which make up most of the 155 mins running time. The long final sequence comprises the show that Uday must put on to try to raise the funds needed to keep the centre running. This is where the ‘double-play’ of the film narrative and Uday’s real-life story come together. The third major theme of the film is its plea to the Indian people and the Indian government to fund the arts because without them the nation has no soul, no identity. The film actually begins with a bold statement about the artist’s intentions – and clearly he is not worried about offending the holders of the purse strings.
I’ll pick out just a few of the features of the dance sequences (since I have no real knowledge of dance as an art form). I recognised that there were many different forms. I think I recognised Kathakali dancers from Kerala and there are folk dances, one of which from the far North East of India is used to illustrate how middle-class Indians have lost sight of their own culture and misread the dancers as ‘African’ because of the impact of Hollywood’s presentation of the exotic. Each of the dances is choreographed in both the sense of the dance steps and movement for the camera in relation to the elaborate studio sets. This choreography is sometimes quite comic. I’m not sure about the ‘staged’ fist fights and face-slapping earlier in the film but there is a deliberate jokery around the use of drums of different sizes and shapes which drive the rhythms of the dances. I don’t know enough about Indian cinema in the 1930s to judge whether Shankar was drawing on earlier cinematic forms from the sub-continent, but I was struck by how elements of the film overall, especially in the location of the arts centre made me think of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (which may well have played in Madras in 1946-7) and of course, The Red Shoes. Shankar could not have seen that film in time but he would have been, like Powell, knowledgeable about the classical dance culture of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. I’m sure also that there are elements of German expressionism in the sets. What is clear is that it is possible to see some of the same ideas in the films of Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt in the 1950s.
For me, one of the most interesting things about the film was its handling of political questions. Started around 1942 in wartime India (when dance troupes in Assam were threatened by Japanese invasion) but not released until 1948 after independence, the film picks up on all of the nationalist fervour and the idealistic hopes for the future. The India depicted in the film is an undivided India and the stress is upon everybody being represented. (In Hindi films of the 1950s and 1960s I have noticed a distinct prejudice against the South.) At the start of the final sequence as the visitors are arriving at the arts centre, they are allowed in only if they are wearing their ‘native costume’. A few British in suits are allowed in, but not middle-class Indians. Another Indian is turned away because he is wearing a European-made shirt. The princes, the rich Maharajas who come (and who the dancers hope will contribute millions of rupees) are forced to duck and crawl through a tiny entrance. The more money they pledge the more Shankar mocks them – they pledge money because of the sexual allure of the dancers, not because they appreciate the culture of the dance.
If this becomes available on Blu-ray or DVD I urge you to get a copy. I certainly need to watch it again. Bravo Martin Scorsese and the WCF and bravo BIFF for showing it.
I’ve been pretty much unconvinced by the current fad for 3D but Wim Wenders’ documentary on choreographer Pina Bausch suggests there is a reason to wear two pairs of spectacles in the cinema. I was entirely unfamiliar with Bausch, however I’m now craving for more having found the excerpts offered in the documentary frustrating in their brevity. This isn’t a criticism as it’s not primarily a filmed performance of her work and, in fact, the extracts are extended; I just wanted the whole lot. Her distinctive, twitchy, ballet seems to offer a brilliant rendition of alienation.
The film’s mostly dance with interpolated talking heads of her company predictably offering a hagiography; however, by the end I believed what they said about Bausch.
I didn’t find the 3D perspective convincing, however as ballet is inherently stylised the distorted space presented to us probably intensified the action. What it did add was a sense of the physicality of the dance as the movement was more obvious in three dimensions. It no doubt helped that Wenders is an experienced director who’s spent 20 years pondering how to render Bausch’s work.
The cinema I saw it in – the National Media Museum’s little Cubby – was packed so hopefully it will come back again.