Lovers Rock is a precious hand-me-down of hazy weekends past

The author of Queenie hails Steve McQueen’s portrait of the British-Jamaican dance parties of her parents’ era, and the power of its cherished memories.

19 November 2020

By Candice Carty-Williams

Lovers Rock (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Lovers Rock is on BBC iPlayer in the UK and Amazon Prime in the US.

There are two songs I remember, very vividly, from my childhood. The first is Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas. My mum would sing it to me pretty much every day. I think I heard her version of it a thousand times before I actually heard the original.

Sight & Sound December 2020 issue
Cover photograph © Misan Harriman

The second song was Silly Games by Janet Kay, one of the queens of lovers rock. I grew up understanding this song as a theme of my mum’s adolescence. Every time it comes on now, her eyes glaze over while she tells me how she used to spend hazy weekends dancing to it in hot, sweaty rooms in her best dress and her best shoes.

Watching Steve McQueen’s film Lovers Rock felt like a vivid memory of a time I felt like I knew, though was never part of, despite my wishes. I am the product of two people to whom this time, this era, belongs. I grew up hearing tales of these dances. The music, the arguments, the food, the sweat on the walls, getting your hair pressed straight for the night and it being so hot in the party that it would have reverted back to an afro by three in the morning.

Micheal Ward as Franklyn in Lovers Rock

My dad, in his younger days, was a sound system man. In his house on Roman Road in East Ham, there was one room that was filled, floor to ceiling, with speakers he’d built, and thousands of records in crates, boxes, leaning against the wall, no categorisation to speak of. He just knew where every vinyl by every artist was. I can’t recall the amount of times I was at his house for the weekend watching him set these speakers up. I know so well that gentle fuzz of audio before the jack finds its way into the amp, that almost audible spark when it finally goes in.

At the centre of Lovers Rock, set almost entirely at a house party in celebration of a birthday, isn’t necessarily the love story between Martha, played by Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, and Franklin, played by Micheal Ward. It could be said that the love story in Lovers Rock is the relationship between the people and the music. It’s the love story of physical closeness; of the gentle and tentative hand-hold as you pull someone to the dancefloor when Turn out the Light by The Investigators comes on, of swaying with another person, bodies pressed close together, arms around necks and around waists, of the wandering hands, and the slow squeeze of the bum. It’s a love story of bass coursing through you, of the wheel up when a big tune comes on, of sparking your spliff and putting your lighters up when the DJ drops Kunta Kinte Dub.

Francis Lovehall as Reggie and Ellis George as Cynthia

We, the generation that came after this one, will never know a party like this. The hall parties that I was pulled to by my mum or my dad as a child certainly have echoes of this. But everyone was, of course, older. Like in the film Lovers Rock, everyone slipped in and out of patois depending on what they were talking about. The more heated or humorous the exchange, the more likely you were to hear the volume of a conversation increase as the Jamaicanisms flowed. But by now, our parents had children – tangible, living responsibilities they’d brought along with them who were sitting in a corner eating curry goat, or running around outside with the other kids messing up their good clothes.

When I got into my teens and my early twenties, the house parties I went to had less… freedom. When I cast my mind back to them, there was less of a vibe. The music was different; it wasn’t about love, it wasn’t about closeness. It wasn’t about finding somebody and holding them close. We listened to grime, and you can’t really hold someone tight while 21 Seconds by So Solid Crew plays out of tinny speakers in the corner. I suppose we were less organised, less able to source a sound system or cook for dozens of people while someone’s mum was away for the weekend and we were using their flat as long as we promised to clean up.

Romario Simpson as Lizard

And we didn’t all have the connections our parents had to Jamaica, the place they still called home. By this point we were second- or third-generation immigrants; lovers rock didn’t belong to us. It was the music of our parents, and we didn’t feel like we had a relationship to it. We thought that we had our own sound because we’d spent our adolescence listening to R&B from America, to indie bands and to the UK garage and funky house our older siblings and cousins played when they were getting ready to go raving.

Nostalgia is an important thing to me. My brain runs on it. To see a time that my parents knew, that they loved, is a very special thing. To hear the songs they played while they cleaned the house, or cooked the dinner, is a reminder and a throwback to a culture that made them, and lives in them, now, in 2020. It might be buried somewhere deep, but that it made it to me, and into the stories I was told in childhood, is remarkable. And that Steve McQueen has brought it to them, and to me, now, is as beautiful and as meaningful as lovers rock itself.

  • Candice Carty-Williams is the author of the bestselling novel Queenie.

Further reading

Mangrove gives voice to Black British Power

By Kehinde Andrews

Mangrove gives voice to Black British Power

Lovers Rock finds respite and rapture in a Black London house party

By Chrystel Oloukoï

Lovers Rock finds respite and rapture in a Black London house party

“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe

By David Olusoga

“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe