McQueen Playing Silly Games with Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock
TV Rating: **
Broadcast: 22nd November 2020
Channel: BBC1 9pm

No no no
You don’t love me
And I know now.

Fans of the genre will recognise the above as the opening lines to Jamaican reggae artist Dawn Penn’s 1994 classic lovers rock anthem ‘No No No.’ Alas for ‘Lovers Rock’ director Steve McQueen, judging by the ensuing social media storm following the film’s broadcast, the song accurately sums up the feeling of many British fans of this genre of music. It was broadcast on prime time BBC1 30/11/2020 as part of the Small Axe series of 5 films from the celebrated Oscar winning Director.

Before I go into the detail of the review, I must firstly congratulate McQueen on getting this commission from the BBC for this and 4 other films, all being shown mid-evening on Sunday nights on BBC1. For decades Black programming has been shunted off till very late at night so the BBC are to be applauded for giving this series it’s backing and such a prestigious time slot.

Small Axe: Lovers Rock

The film evocatively captured the beautiful melodic Lovers Rock music, the good time blues/house party vibe, the romance, dancing, the friendships and tensions that can encapsulate all the elements of a night out. That’s great but the problem with it was that it was essentially a one scene movie – the blues party. People are used to watching such scenes literally as exciting scenes in a film. Not the whole film. The biggest failing of the film in fact was the lack of a clear story line. Essentially it was a soundtrack set to a dance. Fine, but that isn’t a film. Viewers could have just downloaded videos or played records if they wanted to hear the music.

It was clear from watching it that McQueen doesn’t know Lovers Rock and having looked into the background to this I now know this to be true. He has admitted in an interview that he’s never been to a blues party in his life. That doesn’t mean he can’t make a film about it, but he needed to do his research and/or lean heavily on those who knew the scene in order to convey authenticity. Considering there was a lovely cameo from the writer of Silly Games, Record Producer, Dennis Bovell, who would have known the scene very well, it’s surprising and disappointing that a more realistic film wasn’t produced.

The length of the film was unusual 69 minutes. Very short by today’s, even yester-years, standards. Why the extra 9 minutes? Well the answer to that is simple – it was the 9  minutes devoted to Janet Kay’s classic and much loved single ‘Silly Games’. I love the song but it was so stretched out it became laborious and un-enjoyable. I understand the desire to base the seminal moment of the film around this song, but this over milked the cow. By the time the credits rolled it almost felt as if Silly Games lasted for 60 minutes with just 9 minutes of film. That was plain silly and would have benefited from serious editing.

There were numerous scenes thrown in that seemed to make no sense and were out of kilter with the non-existent storyline and plot. For instance the two girls about to kiss in the bedroom at the party. That seemed un-necessary and added no value or entertainment to the story. There was a cross in the bedroom in which they sat, which made the scene almost blasphemous. There were a few symbolic signs of the cross in the story from time to time. It wasn’t entirely clear what they were saying other than signifying the Lord is present – be that in the house or on the street. It was also a nod to Martha’s Christian belief’s which aren’t really a feature of the story until a particular junction towards the finale.

The best friend leaving without her girlfriend. That never happens or at least not without discussion first (which didn’t happen) and even then it still doesn’t happen!

The scene with Martha just sitting directly on the toilet seat is also a big no no. I understand why it was there visually as from the bathroom she could see her friend leaving, but it just seemed forced and gratuitous.

The attempted rape scene of Cynthia was unrealistic and aside from the perpetrator being stopped and threatened there and then, he suffered no other consequence and returned to the dance as if nothing happened.

Then there was the scene with the guy arriving mid-way through the party all angry and extremely vexed with Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) for not attending his mother’s funeral. There was no context whatsoever for this and him laying hands on the bouncer and not getting thumped down was unrealistic as was him having a go at lead actress Martha whilst her romantic lead, Franklyn (Micheal Ward) sat there watching and not stepping in to protect and defend her was also unrealistic.

It’s baffling that a film with no clear plot, storyline or narrative with plenty of padded out scenes made it through the rigorous commissioning and broadcasting process at the BBC.  

Surely an actual storyline could have been based around lover’s rock songs? That’s been done so successfully with so many films e.g. Mamma Mia and Bohemian Rhapsody to name but two. The Story of Lovers Rock documentary by Menelik Shabazz did this so well, mixing the music with interviews and anecdotes from the artists, comedians, and others who lived and loved the music at the time.

It is also a baffling mis-step to put this series on at 9pm on Sunday’s directly up against the brand new series of ITV’s hugely successful ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!? It’s almost as if they’ve set up Small Axe to fail. A black orientated series was unlikely to fare well with such scheduling. Ratings thus far bear that out – 1.5m for Mangrove (which was a lot worse, in my view) and 1.2m for Lovers Rock. That’s a very poor return. That’s unsurprising for the reasons outline above and more so because there has been a total lack of promotion worthy of the name by the BBC. Whilst they did preview Small Axe months ago, now that the series is going out, there are no or very few trailers being shown. I had to search for them online including the one for ‘Red White and Blue’ broadcast on 29/11/2020. It’s just unacceptable. When has the BBC ever not massively promoted such a Sunday night series? It’s hugely disappointing and disrespectful all round to McQueen and the viewers. Why make the show if you’re not going to seriously back it and promote it fully?

Whilst the film was overall an enjoyable, highly watchable film, it just left a lot to be desired.

It’s quite telling that none of the Lovers Rock artists as far as I’m aware promoted or have talked online about the film on their social media. Unlike Leroy Logan, the ex-Police Sergeant and subject of ‘Red, White and Blue’, he, as well as the actor playing him, film star John Boyega, were fairly active with their social media, TV and radio appearances in the build up to the broadcast. Leroy’s seen the film and is clearly giving it his blessing so I have high hopes therefore that it will be a good film with a storyline! If not, I’m sure Logan has plenty of friends in the Police force who will be happy to pay McQueen a visit, so it had better be good for his sake!

As for Lovers Rock, well to quote another Dawn Penn classic, I think McQueen should just put his hands up and say “I’m So Sorry.”

© Tiemo Talk of the Town


  1. Mo Gilligan: Black, British and Funny – Tiemo review – 29th November 2020
  2. What a Sorry Mess: ‘Sorry I Didn’t Know’ – Tiemo review – 9th November 2020
  3. Craig and Danny: Funny, Black and on TV – Tiemo review – 3rd November 2020
  4. Lenny Henry’s Race Through Comedy – Sky Gold (2019 ) – repeated 19-21st October 2020 and currently available to watch on Sky TV.
  5. Blue Story: A South Side Romance – Tiemo review – 1st December 2019

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2 Responses to McQueen Playing Silly Games with Lovers Rock

  1. Pingback: Mo Gilligan: Black British and Funny – Review | tiemotalkofthetown

  2. Very well done with this review.. You touched on many points. This film has definitely struck a nerve in the black community. I am receiving videos and I am unable to forward them further;. Whatsapp has put further restrictions on the forwarding of messages otherwise there’d be lots more

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