For such a tiny sliver of a thing - 70 minutes long, set almost entirely in one location, almost nothing "happens" - Lovers Rock feels like it's almost boundless in how much it can yield up to its viewer. This is true simply at the level of how we encounter it: taken purely on its own terms as an individual object, we have here a floating, trancelike celebration of pure joy, a depiction of a lively house party in which the visceral potency of a well-chosen song list transforms every moment into a tribute to the sensual pleasures of living in a human body. Taken in context as the second episode of the Small Axe project, and the immediate follow-up to Mangrove, that celebration is marked, but not diluted, by a celebration of collective power, as the members of London's West Indian immigrant population, beset by racism and a larger culture that very openly does not want them around, and cares nothing about their safety, band together to declare the value of their music, their community, their emotions, their right to life and happiness.

And it's also just a consummate piece of audio-visual craftsmanship on top of it. The question of whether Small Axe is "cinema" or "television" is floating around in The Discourse without ever becoming a top-level question that people want to get into fights over; my weaselly way out of the problem is to say that if Dekalog is television, so is this, and if Dekalog is cinema, so is this.* Either way, the work being done by Steve McQueen and his collaborators - editor Chris Dickens, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, costume designers Lisa Duncan and Jacqueline Curran, sound mixer Ronald Bailey, re-recording mixers Paul Cotterell and James Harrison - is extremely lovely and thoughtful, carefully attuned to the smallest details of what the sounds and images, and the relationship between them, are telling the audience. But here's my pitch as to why I think that Lovers Rock is a triumph of television specifically, even while Mangrove felt like it could go either way. The pleasures here are the pleasures of a small, crowded domestic space, a living room and back yard crammed full of sweaty, energetic bodies moving gracefully around each other. It feels right to experience that in our domestic spaces, the house where we watch melding into the house where the dancing is all set. Even the aspect ratio that McQueen and Kirchner use - 2.35:1 in Mangrove, 1.78:1 here - accentuates a kind of cluttered openness that makes this feel like we should be encountering it up close, in a tight space, rather than looking up at it from a worshipful distance. And I get that in 2020, the distinction is to some degree moot, but I live in optimistic hope that the distinction between movie theaters and televisions will one day again become a salient one.

The point of all that being: Lovers Rock is an intimate piece. Sublimely, exhaustingly so. There is a story here: in the early 1980s, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) head off to a house party, to dance all night to music carefully curated from Caribbean recording artists (the title is multi-layered, but most straightforwardly, "lovers rock" is a particular subgenre of reggae). While there, Martha starts dancing with Franklyn (Micheal Ward), and over the course of the night, they get more and more into each other; by the time they part at dawn, they agree to see each other again that evening, and Martha sneaks back into her bedroom, so as to avoid tipping off her religious parents what she's been up to. The end. What this is really about, though, is the transporting quality of the music, the safety of the dance floor, and the empowerment that comes from being in a space one has defined for oneself (this empowerment comes in multiple forms: the self-determination of the West Indian population against a hostile macroculture, of course, and the closest the shapeless party has to a "climax" is when this subtext briefly becomes text; but the film chooses to end on a moment reiterating that Martha has carved out this moment for herself from a conservative family life). It is about the arc of being at a party that starts with a giddy, enthusiastic crowd, and ends with the last people who still have some dancing left in them in a wired frenzy in the last pre-dawn hours, that dizzying point of being too exhausted to feel tired.

The bulk of the film, then, is devoted simply to the overwhelming feeling of being in the middle of a dance party, and McQueen and crew have done exemplary work in bending every aspect of their filmmaking to evoking that feeling. Kirchner's camera floats restlessly in weightless handheld long takes, drawing from McQueen's best strengths as a director (this absolutely feels like it came from the man who directed Widows, giving himself leave to do something joyous for once). This visual weightlessness collides to great effect with the close observation of the physical space where the party takes place - the film is especially obsessed with the texture and color of clothing, the way it feels against one's skin, the way hands run across it, the way it drapes and moves softly to the music, just a hair out of time with the body beneath it - and the way the music grows more dreamy and trance-inducing as the night goes on. It's also doing very fine work with color, at one key moment in the early going cutting from the gold-and-purple tones inside the party to the cool, damp greens of the night outside, exactly suggesting in visuals the moment that you need to duck out of a party for a few minutes of fresh air, and and the sweetness of those first seconds outside. St. Aubyn's unexpectedly complex performance includes several moments where she shifts her accent, always motivated in small ways by how she's attempting to situate herself relative to the person she's interacting with, based on whether her advantage in that moment will be in seeming more Jamaican, or more English.

All of its best moments, though, are about the music and the movement of humans, and the shared feeling of celebration. Lovers Rock has a surprisingly long list of potential best moments, for something so short, but my two favorites are both about group experience of music: midway through the film, the entire party, which has been singing along to Janet Kay's "Silly Games" as they dance, keeps singing even after the DJ cuts out the music, without even seeming to notice that this has happened, the song becoming a kind of shared chant. But I think I loved even better the kick-off to the party, when the trite opening notes of Carl Douglas's "Kung Fu Fighting" are piped into the room, and the whole crowd goes nuts, with several dancers very enthusiastically striking poses as the camera drifts in arcs around them, watching them almost vibrate with the happiness and potential energy of the dance about to start. In a packed full of moments about the sensory pleasure of music and moving in time to music, nothing is more purely joyful than this lingering beat about the instant before that movement. Lovers Rock isn't blind to the shortcomings of the world and the ways in which all of this joy is constrained and temporary, and can be darkened even by bad feelings within the party itself, but that makes the joy itself all the richer.

And I don't even like house parties.

Check out Rob's interview with star Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn:

*Historically, I have always considered Dekalog television, not without regrets when list-making time comes around, much as my Best of 2020 list will look even more paltry without Lovers Rock on it. But without rules, we are left with anarchy.