How Steve McQueen's Family History Inspired 'Lovers Rock'

Olivia Ovenden
·3-min read
Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

From Esquire

The ritual of a night out, and the long and winding road from getting ready to the very last track on the dance-floor, is the journey that Steve McQueen takes us on in 'Lovers Rock', the second instalment of his BBC film series, Small Axe.

We watch the jostling around in dressing gowns with dresses hung up ready to go, then an MC warming up in a room which has been emptied of furniture, then pots bubbling on the stove ready to feed the hungry revellers who later line up to get into the party. It is circa 1979 in West London and the house is being used to host a blues party where grinding, yelling, singing and laughter go unchecked in a scene of private Black joy.

The story is taken from McQueen's own family history, inspired by how his Aunt Molly used to sneak off from Shepherd's Bush to Ladbroke Grove to attend blues house parties. "I just wanted to make a film about my aunt," McQueen told Esquire. "My uncle used to leave the back door open for my aunt to go to the blues. She’d come back the next morning and have to go to church."

"Those blues parties were there because people couldn’t get into clubs,” he says "There was a quota. So people made their own sound systems and had a blues. They took the furniture out of the house to make the club. It was beautiful. Wonderful."

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

In 'Lovers Rock' we watch the glorious chaos of a party in full swing, with couples swaying on the dance-floor, people climbing over each other to get up the stairs, and one stirring scene in which the crowd sings in chorus to 'Silly Games', a song written by Dennis Bovell. Bovell, who has a cameo in the film, is a Barbados-born musician and a pioneer of lovers rock, the soft, romantic type of reggae music that the film takes its title from. "It’s freedom," McQueen says of the throng we see dancing and singing together. "It’s their church, where they can be totally and absolutely themselves and understood, appreciated, loved."

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

There are darker forces which occasionally swim to the surface – a woman accosted in the garden, a car slowing pulling up outside, followed by a siren, or the dressing down a sour white boss administers – but for this one night, those worries are kept at bay by the steady rhythm of music and laughter.

Dedicated to 'all rockers and lovers', McQueen says that the film shows that "music can be healing", and that it paints a picture of the escapism that the weekend could offer from the brutal week. "That party in ‘Lovers Rock’," he says. "There’s something so universal about it that I love. It’s a celebration of the senses: taste, smell, sensuality, sexuality, every single sense is celebrated, absolutely."

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