The Story of Lover's Rock Review
The Story of Lover’s Rock is the latest documentary from Menelik Shabazz. Though best known for founding Black Filmmaker Magazine and for directing the 1981 feature Burning an Illusion, his work on both the big and small screen has been centred almost exclusively in non-fiction. His earliest shorts were all documentaries, whether Step Forward Youth from 1977, which provided a glimpse into the lives of black British youth, or Breaking Point, a look at the relationship between the police and black communities made for Associated Television (ATV). Other notables include Blood Ah Go Run, an alternative newsreel produced as a result of the mainstream news channels ignoring the deaths of thirteen black youths in a racially motivated arson attack, and Time and Judgement, an experimental blend of non-fiction and dramatic devices that chronicled the African Diaspora.
All of these films were politically engaged. Breaking Point, for example, placed a firm focus on the controversial ‘sus’ laws (as in ‘suspected person’), whilst Blood Ah Go Run was as angry as you would expect. Time and Judgement was one of a series of projects produced by the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop which Shabazz had co-founded in the mid-eighties. Their films repeatedly tackled the big issues and problematic and/or controversial subject matter. Indeed the very first, The People’s Account from 1985, which looked at that year’s Broadwater Farm riot in Tottenham, was banned from British television. Subsequent documentaries would take a look at the apartheid in South Africa, religion and the role of music in the protest movement.
Though still catering for a predominantly black audience, The Story of Lover’s Rock replaces the political with the personal. The opening voice-over proclaims the documentary “a look back at the way we were in the seventies and eighties”, but in doing so is not referring to the ‘sus’ laws or to the Brixton riots. Rather it is talking about youth and young love, about the search for a black identity that was neither distinctly British nor distinctly Caribbean, about making it in a music scene that would slowly shift from the homegrown into something with international recognition. The phrase most repeated throughout The Story of Lover’s Rock is either “our music” or “our genre” - always we have this sense of an immediate connection. Shabazz has spoken to both those involved (the musicians, the DJs, the producers, the label owners) and those who grew up under its influence (celebrities, comedians, the general public), yet the strength of this bond for both parties is much the same.
These interviews form the backbone to The Story of Lover’s Rock, maintaining the personal dimension. The strong whiff of nostalgia arguably makes this an equivalent to those I Love the Seventies-type of programming that bulked out television schedules during the past decade. Similarly there is also a dash of humour of proceedings, thanks in part to the presence of a handful of comedians in front the camera but also Shabazz’s decision to stage certain reminiscences in a sketch-like fashion. Dancefloors and the situations that occurred on them are recreated as a given interviewee relates an anecdote or two. It’s a highly agreeable means of freshening up the talking heads format. Arguably it also makes The Story of Lover’s Rock as warm and inviting as the music it is documenting. Just as the emphasis on harmonies and melodies would make lover’s rock so appealing, so too this concentration on the more comical and/or light-hearted of memories makes for engaging viewing.
Not that the music is ignored, of course. The Story of Lover’s Rock has a wealth of videotape and scratchy celluloid from the archive to accompany the recollections, plus Shabazz has captured plenty of new footage at more recent concerts and performances. We get to see the likes of Brown Sugar and Janet Kay performing at the height of their UK popularity and the continuing success of the likes of Sugar Minott and Paul Hunnigale as they play to what appear to be massive sell-out audiences. As well as relating their more personal tales we also get to hear the stories behind these artists and their songs, all the while with a focus on the genre overall and how it progressed, evolved and found its own identity over the years. (As we would expect from Shabazz the parallels here with experiences of black Britons does prompt some political ramifications.) Of course, the mixture of both the old and newly recorded also demonstrates the longevity lover’s rock has. For all the nostalgia on display, the music clearly has legs - although maybe nowadays the nostalgia is just another facet to its appeal?
And yet the music has also remained underground to an extent. The Story of Lover’s Rock notes the influence on mainstream acts such as UB40, but then it also points out how such a key artist as Janet Kay could go her entire career to date without ever once having a record contract in the UK. She never did any PR, rather the songs did their own work - if they appealed, then they appealed, but there was never any conscious attempt at marketing behind them, especially once it became clear that mainstream radio was ignoring the style. Her only recording contract, in fact, was in Japan where lover’s rock inexplicably took off some years back. Indeed, Sony Japan still puts out compilations whose volumes have extended well into double figures.
Such unlikelihood clearly shows there is some scope for crossover, yet there is a feeling that The Story of Lover’s Rock is geared towards the already initiated. The nostalgic pull is a strong one and so it is that the outsider may not feel entirely at home. For all the efforts to be as much an historical document as it is a personal, it is the latter which overrides. Certainly, there is more than enough to satisfy the primer-seeking newcomer, but it’s the lifelong fan - the one who can share in and relate to these memories - who will surely get the most out of Shabazz’s film.
A fairly basic effort from Verve with few bells and whistles. The presentation itself is more than acceptable with the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio supplemented by a stereo soundtrack. Both remain crisp and clean throughout, presenting no problems for the single-layered disc to contend with. The interviewees are always clear whilst the musical numbers sit easily amongst the spoken word. Note that some of the archive footage is not in the best of shape as, of course, we would fully expect. There are no supplementary subtitles for the hard of hearing, however, whilst the only extra appears in the form of a sole trailer.