In the most transporting scene of Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock,” we’re at a London house party that has just hit its smoky seductive dirty-dancing groove. It’s 1980, and most of the revelers have West Indian roots. The men, in their natty duds and rasta hats, stand against the wall smoking joints, looking for women to tug by the arm onto the dance floor (a gesture that seems coercive, but is actually a flirtatious ritual). Then a hypnotic sound comes on: It’s “Silly Games,” Janet Kay’s delectably lulling reggae-pop anthem, a hit in the U.K. in 1979. With its melting chords and disco flutes and Kay’s voice soaring into an ecstatic high register, the song hits the party like opium.
The dancers nuzzle up to each other, enraptured by the sheer sway of it, moving from slow dancing to slow grooving to slow foreplay. Is that a drop of sweat rolling down the wall? The scene becomes a trance-out of bodies in motion, a swoon of seduction (the audience gets seduced too), to the point that the partiers keep singing, a cappella, several minutes after the song is over. They don’t want the dream to end.
“Lovers Rock” is a reverie that’s also a raw slice of culturally observant drama. The movie, which opens the New York Film Festival tonight, is part of “Small Axe: A Collection of Five Films,” an anthology of dramas about the Black British experience from the ’60s to the ’80s that McQueen (“12 Years a Slave,” “Widows”) directed for BBC One and Amazon Studios. This is the only one of the five that’s not based on a true story, but the way McQueen has staged it, it’s a vibrantly detailed, idiosyncratic, at times nearly voyeuristic dub reggae mood piece that casts a spell of time-machine reality.
McQueen wants to take us into a thriving London subculture of disenfranchised people who weren’t allowed to go to white dance clubs, so they had to create their own, complete with Jamaican hulk bouncer and entry charge. “Lovers Rock” is only 70 minutes long, and nearly all of it takes place in that house, starting in the afternoon, when the roly-poly DJ, Samson (Kadeem Ramsay), and his crew remove the couch and rugs and set up their giant homemade speakers in the tall-ceilinged living room, and the women cook up luscious pots of goat curry and ackee and salt fish, and then people start arriving and mingling and dancing — but even when they do, this doesn’t look or feel like a movie party.
It moves and breathes like a real party, with lots of lounging and a crowd of not so many people, the whole thing shot through with a documentary randomness that generates its own drama, because it lets us know that anything might happen. The camera drifts and hovers and lingers, and the songs, which segue from “He’s the Greatest Dancer” to “Kung Fu Fighting” to the romantic mode of reggae known as lovers rock, almost never stop. There isn’t too much dialogue, but that works out fine, because the music does the talking.
Watching “Lovers Rock,” the audience is eavesdropping, and we’re asked to read what’s going on — the submerged dynamics of attraction, courtship, and power. A number of the men are Jamaican immigrants who carry their own version of old-world macho style. Whereas the film’s central character, the teenage Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, making a charismatic debut), in her distressed-silver ruffled ice-cream prom dress, is a born-and-bred middle-class Britisher with Jamaican roots, and she’s having none of it.
In the film’s opening moments, she sneaks out of the home of her strict Christian family to go to the party, then meets up with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). At the party, Patty quickly sours on what she thinks is too aggressive a vibe. But Martha meets Franklyn (Micheal Ward, the terrific actor from “Blue Story”), who in his funky dark linoleum Mondrian party shirt turns out to be as soulful and protective as his come-on promised. Meanwhile, Cindy (Ellis George), the birthday girl, resplendent in a scarlet dress, gets lured into the glamorous spell cast by Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby), who’s handsome and dressed to the nines, but he’s got a quietly threatening way about him that turns out to be no joke.
One night, one homemade dance club, one slow-burn reggae reverie that culminates, by the end, in an exultant moment of fist-raising Black Power, and one connection that just might last: “Lovers Rock” is nothing more (or less) than a snapshot of an era, a moment, a series of lives. Yet it lingers like a song you don’t want to get out of your head.