The Sadness of Lovers Rock

Missing the joy of common spaces

With Thanksgiving over, I still feel the ache of what was lost this year. Some people went right ahead and celebrated the holiday the way they always do. To those people, I firmly and authoritatively raise my middle finger, you selfish boobs. If you had a small scale celebration with the immediate members of your family, as I did, I thank you. 

Even though I know why we did things the way we did, even though I agree with the choice, even though I argued in the kitchen less than I would have during a traditional, larger Thanksgiving, I still missed coming together with a big group. And I don’t even like people all that much!  

What’s helped me process that feeling is one of the films from Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s new anthology of films. Three more of them will be released on Amazon Prime this month, but the one that’s stuck to my ribs is Lovers Rock

Taking place in less than 24 hours, the film focuses mostly on Martha, a young Jamaican woman in London in 1980, as she sneaks out of her home and attends a house party. While she gets ready, the DJs move the rugs and couch and move in their equipment at the house; in the kitchen older women make ackee and goat curry to sell at the party; younger women primp in front of the mirror, mulling over their best options for footwear. Throughout, reggae and dub and soul play. The thump of the bass is palpable; the rhythm, something you could bite. 

It feels real to me, even though I was raised far from the time and place and community in which Lovers Rock is set. My hometown had a sizable, if seasonal, Jamaican population. They were part of an earlier wave of apple pickers who came from the island each year, on visas, to harvest the crop in the Hudson Valley. My little town (population 400) had five businesses if you counted the post office. Because of that Jamaican population, one of those businesses was a reggae joint called the Hollywood Bar. They’d play music, have parties. Some weekends there’d be a goat outside the bar on Friday that was suspiciously absent from the yard on Monday. I learned not to ask after the goat’s whereabouts.  

The plot of Lovers Rock is impressionistic: Martha has a meet-cute with Franklyn, and they fall in love, or first love, over the course of the evening. The high point of the film doesn’t have any dialogue. It centers around Janet Kay’s Silly Games, a reggae torch song released in 1979. The DJ plays the record. On the soundtrack, Kay longs for her crush, as yet requited. They’re both to blame but why won’t one of them make the first move? 

In the film, everyone wordlessly couples up for this song, Martha and Franklyn among them. They haven’t so much as kissed yet. McQueen films Martha and Franklyn at waist level, doing something between grinding and swaying and occupying space dangerously close to one another. The walls sweat, a real-life detail from McQueen’s own life, though he was only ten years old at the time the film is set. He captures the moment when the party gets gooooood.  

I should not be surprised, therefore, that we’re killing ourselves to attend house parties these days. Going to house parties in 2020 is a stupid thing to do, but the appeal now is primal and feels urgent. That craving for connection. Learning to be social with people we find attractive. Drinking for the first time, warm beer or schnapps or Popov and Sprite in a Solo Cup. Rooms stuffy with exhalation and pheromones and smoke and sweat. It’s intoxicating. This year, it’s toxic.    

Not wanting the moment to end when Silly Games does, the partygoers reprise it, a cappella. It’s a joyous moment. Who doesn’t want the feeling to live on when it’s so good, so thick, so weighted with expectation and desire and the assuredness that comes with being young and thinking that you’re sure to have so many more of them in the years to come? 

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I’m not the only one who enjoyed Lovers Rock and was mesmerized by that scene. Some other excellent writing about it:

K. Austin Collins in Rolling Stone

Angelica Jade Bastién In Vulture

Jeremy Gordon in the New York Times