Steve McQueen's 'Lovers Rock' gets an overhauled New York Film Festival off to a glorious start

Steve McQueen's 'Lovers Rock' gets an overhauled New York Film Festival off to a glorious start

With “Lovers Rock,” the wonderful opening-night movie at this year’s dramatically overhauled New York Film Festival, the director Steve McQueen sets aside the spectacles of cruelty that have so often transfixed him (and us) and embraces a vision of bliss. Unfolding over a dreamy, restless, glorious night in 1980s London, the movie is named after lovers rock, the romantic genre of British reggae music that flourished in the late 1970s and ’80s. But it’s also, of course, a love story — one that begins with a chance meeting at a house party and is sealed on a crowded dance floor, where Black men and women sing, sway and cling to each other with ecstatic abandon and the camera’s gaze becomes its own tender caress.

The new lovers in question, Martha (newcomer Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward), are among the revelers who have jammed this small house in Notting Hill, flowing up and down staircases and spilling out onto the dance floor. Early on we see that house being prepared for the evening’s festivities: The men clear the furniture and hook up their speakers, while the women cook goat curry and other Jamaican dishes in the kitchen, laughing and chatting and performing their own rendition of Janet Kay’s 1979 hit “Silly Games.” That song will be revived later that night, played by a DJ and his crew but ultimately sustained by the dancers, singing in full-throated a cappella — one of several moments in this fleet 68-minute film when time itself comes to a rapturous standstill.

“Lovers Rock” is the first of five films to be unveiled in McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology, which he directed and co-wrote for the BBC and Amazon Studios. The films, which focus on life in London’s West Indian community during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, will stream later this fall; three of them — “Lovers Rock,” “Mangrove” and “Red, White and Blue” — are having their world premieres at the New York Film Festival. (The ordinarily 17-day event, presented annually by Film at Lincoln Center, has been expanded to 24 days this year to allow for COVID-19 restrictions; it begins Thursday, Sept. 17, and runs until Oct. 11.)

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A scene from the movie “Lovers Rock.”

(Amazon Studios)

There will be more to say about McQueen’s ambitious new project after the NYFF screenings of “Mangrove” and “Red, White and Blue,” both of which tell fact-based stories about police racism and brutality. Notably, “Lovers Rock” is the only film in the anthology not drawn directly from real-life events, and to whatever degree it resembles the other “Small Axe” titles, its abundance of joy feels like a pointed change of rhythm, tone and form for McQueen. The camerawork (by the gifted Shabier Kircher, of “Skate Kitchen”) is fast, loose and often woozy in its effects. Gone are the stark, austere compositions that have typified much of the director’s earlier work like “Hunger,” “Shame” and his Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave.”’

That aesthetic severity served McQueen’s intentions, his unblinking focus on the physical and spiritual deprivations of the imprisoned. (It also testified to his background as a visual artist.) “Lovers Rock,” for its part, isn’t devoid of pain; there are brief altercations, tense encounters and a few sharp reminders of white hostility hovering at the edges of this Black refuge. But this is the first of McQueen’s films, including his terrific 2018 heist thriller, “Widows,” that wholly and unambiguously pulses with pleasure. It’s a delight to see the director cut loose, along with his gifted behind-the-scenes collaborators (including production designer Helen Scott and costume designer Jacqueline Durran) and his captivating stars.

As a vision of community in warm, cramped quarters — imagine the opposite of “social distancing” and you’re halfway there — the movie also feels like a particularly poignant choice of opener for this 58th edition of NYFF, which, like nearly every cinephile gathering this year, has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s fortunate that a festival as important and tradition-driven as NYFF found a way to proceed, albeit with a slimmer lineup and a mix of virtual screenings and drive-in presentations (in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx). That’s especially true considering how many festivals had to cancel this year, notably Cannes, where “Lovers Rock” and “Mangrove” were originally scheduled to have their world premieres in May.

Despite the uncertainty and the upheaval — and the absence of any Cannes-premiered titles, which usually figure prominently in the lineup — the New York Film Festival maintains its commitment to a discerning, well-curated program that features movies from all over the globe and sees awards-season wattage as a bonus rather than a priority. Last year’s NYFF did showcase a few Oscar contenders, such as “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story” and “Parasite.” This year’s event will host a few other high-profile world premieres in the coming weeks, including Azazel Jacobs’ “French Exit,” a comedy starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges, which will close the festival on Oct. 11; and “On the Rocks,” a reunion between director Sofia Coppola and her “Lost in Translation” star, Bill Murray, that will screen Sept. 22 in the Spotlights sidebar.

But these are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the 25 films in the main slate, on which I’ll have more to report in the coming weeks, hail from further afield and have already played at earlier festivals like Sundance, Berlin, Venice and Toronto. (The selection committee behind the main slate is chaired by Dennis Lim, director of programming at Film at Lincoln Center, and includes NYFF director Eugene Hernandez, programmers Florence Almozini and Rachel Rosen, and critic K. Austin Collins.) And as is hardly surprising in a year of renewed protests over anti-Black racism and violence, the struggle for justice is one particular point of emphasis in the program, the “Small Axe” films being the most prominent example.

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A still from the documentary “Time.”

(Sundance Institute)

Continuing the theme on the documentary side are Garrett Bradley’s Sundance prizewinner “Time” (Sept. 20), which breathtakingly chronicles a Louisiana family’s 20-year struggle with the American justice system, and Sam Pollard’s “MLK/FBI,” a meticulously damning account of how J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI used targeted surveillance in an effort to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and hinder the civil rights movement. Full of rewarding glimpses of King’s public appearances and speeches, and structured around a small but incisive group of present-day voices, “MLK/FBI” considers not only the appalling invasiveness of the FBI’s investigation (which was fueled in part by racist assumptions about Black male sexuality), but also the ethical complications of even sifting through, let alone publicizing, the results of that investigation.

An even more argumentative approach characterizes Ephraim Asili’s debut feature, “The Inheritance,” a formally and intellectually playful mix of documentary and scripted footage that interrogates different forms of Black resistance, past and present. Taking a page from Jean-Luc Godard’s oft-referenced “La Chinoise” (1967), the movie, screening in the festival’s Currents sidebar, follows a fictional collective of young revolutionaries who move into a West Philadelphia house and find a lot to bicker over, whether it’s their voluminous reading material (ranging from Julius K. Nyerere to Sonia Sanchez) or the more banal challenges of living together. At the heart of “The Inheritance” is a documentary account of the 1985 clash between the Black activist group MOVE and Philadelphia police, a devastating tragedy whose relevance today needs no underscoring.

The throughline continues elsewhere in the festival, including the Revivals sidebar, which will screen Ivan Dixon’s civil rights-era drama “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” (1973) and documentaries Terence Dixon’s “Meeting the Man: James Baldwin” (1971) and William Klein’s “Muhammad Ali, the Greatest” (1974). This section is also where you’ll find screenings of Joyce Chopra’s 1985 drama, “Smooth Talk,” featuring an 18-year-old Laura Dern in her first leading role, and “Damnation,” a 1988 noir from the Hungarian master Béla Tarr. And finally, I would be remiss not to mention the retrospective screenings of two personal all-time favorites: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Flowers of Shanghai” (1998) and Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love” (2001), which has been newly restored and will accompany a forthcoming national retrospective of Wong’s work. No less than “Lovers Rock,” it’s a screen romance to make you swoon.

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Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in the movie “In the Mood for Love.”

(USA Films)

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