Lovers Rock ★★★½

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66/100

For a certain (but not at all uncommon) breed of cinephile, there's nothing more inherently rapturous than spontaneous onscreen dancing. I'm talking here not about carefully choreographed musical numbers—though the folks I mean certainly enjoy those as well—but about scenes in which characters simply, naturalistically respond with their bodies to rhythm and melody, whether at a club or in the middle of nowhere, solo or amongst a large group. Fortuitously (but not coincidentally), Alissa Wilkinson just wrote a piece for Vox, pegged to Lovers Rock, expressing just such a can't-screw-it-up mindset. "Whenever this sort of extended dance scene shows up in a film—with diegetic music that sets the characters swaying and asks us to listen to the full song with them—the result is intoxicating," she asserts, apparently brooking no exceptions.

I, however, don't get drunk/high quite that easily. Sure, there are numerous examples of the phenomenon that I find thrilling. But context is crucial. A very specific character dynamic, for example, makes the "Night Shift" sequence in 35 Shots of Rum so swoonworthy—it's not just a matter of "I dig this song and hey look people are dancing to it." Same goes for House of Pleasures and "Nights in White Satin," to cite another instance that springs to mind. On the flip side, I've never understood why many of my peers went nuts for the Regular Lovers kids dancing around to "This Time Tomorrow," which to my eyes just looked like...some kids dancing around. I'm not saying there's no contextual magic happening there—for those who were floored, I'm sure there is. Didn't register for me, that's all. The combination of music and movement doesn't suffice.

At any rate, Lovers Rock seems expressly designed to trigger this particular response, serving up a nearly nonstop dose of boogie-by-proxy ecstasy—only some of which worked its psychoactive magic on me. If you've seen the film/episode/whatever (arrgh!), you can probably guess which two interludes I'd single out as glorious, as they're the same ones that just about everybody considers highlights: (1) "Silly Games" going a cappella and (2) the limb-flailing "Kunta Kinte" dance. Where I part company from the consensus, it seems, is in finding the rest more diverting than transporting. It's a world I'm unfamiliar with, which automatically compels; ate up the early details of meal prep and beauty regimens and sound equipment being installed. Still, I suspect that I'd have preferred a more traditional runtime, were the additional 20-40 minutes devoted to strengthening Martha and Franklyn's connection (which feels a tad skeletal as is) and/or exploring the rest of the ensemble (none of whom really stands out). Alternatively, McQueen could have chosen not to foreground anyone, instead committing wholeheartedly to milieu and motion above all. This is a recurring theme in my criticism of late, I'm suddenly realizing: filmmakers who straddle a line that I'd rather than see them choose one side of, whether it be the accessible side or the formalist side. Here, we get just enough character specificity to make me long for more—a feeling crystallized by the final shot, which unexpectedly reminded me of how Dazed and Confused ends (with Wiley Wiggins' Mitch in bed after his night-long adventure, though he's but one of many). Hardly a moment of Lovers Rock failed to engage me, but only during the two aforementioned sequences, and at the very end, was I swept up in a rush of emotion. Sometimes—for me, at least—shots of people dancing are just shots of people dancing.