The Story of Lovers Rock is a feature-length documentary chronicling the peak of popularity of a subgenre of reggae, which was widely popular in the 1980s black British community.
The film on Nov. 25 opened New York’s African Diaspora International Film Festival, and its director Menelik Shabazz was on hand to present it, as well as his 1981 feature, Burning An Illusion, from the perspective of a young independent black woman, whose boyfriend is turning into something of an unwelcome leech. Shabazz is also publisher of bfm (Black Filmmaker) Media, which ceased publishing its excellent print magazine some years ago but remains online at http://www.bfmmedia.com.
Back to the music, Lovers Rock never really reached the U.S. market, which is not surprising because if it weren’t for white middle college kids, reggae and Bob Marley would have never become a success in the States. African-American radio stations never played reggae. In 1973 The Wailers were on the same bill as Bruce Springsteen at the New York club Max’s Kansas City.
I heard those Jamaican sounds for the first time on the sound system of an outdoor Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert in August 1974 was blaring The Wailers’ second Island album, from which I recognized “I Shot The Sheriff.” Eric Clapton had a popular cover version at the time. What followed was an obsession that even culminated in a pilgrimage to Bob Marley’s Miami house, where I met his mother in 1995.
It was during this search for reggae’s origins that I first came across Alton Ellis, whose romantic crooning (think early 1960s Marvin Gaye) to a gentle rock-steady beat in the mid-to late 1960s no doubt was an influence to the male Lovers Rock vocalists who emerged in the late 1970s. But Ellis oddly isn’t mentioned at all in the film, although one of the Kingston, Trenchtown native’s discoveries after immigrating to Britain in 1972 was Janet Kay, a leading force of Lovers Rock. Whereas roots reggae in the Marley mode was a male domain, females became Lovers Rock stars in their own right. Feminist statements were made in the form of 45-rpm records. The battle of the sexes became an intellectual art exercise. The music’s goal was romance.
Lovers Rock was as much as a slow bump-and-grind dance as it was a musical style.
Shabazz does an excellent job in getting fans of Lovers Rock to explain how important the music became to their social lives. A male and female separately recount basically the same story about how dark the dance floors were and how horrified they were once they could see after the number was over who their partners were. In particular, two male mates humorously reminisce about their various moves and experiences with the ladies; one scored often, the other didn’t. Some of the so-called experts come off better than others. Two white tastemakers who ran an influential reggae shop are fairly inarticulate, or just stiff on camera, and one wonders why Shabazz didn’t leave them on the cutting room floor. Thankfully, Dennis Bovell, a producer/DJ/bass player, is a captivating screen presence and excellent storyteller, about how Lovers Rock as a local British phenomenon caught on. Despite being all but ignored in the U.S., Lovers Rock found an appreciative cult of fans in Japan years later, the film explains.
Shabazz relies on a combination of archival and recent concert footage of a London show in which the subgenre’s purveyors came out of semi-retirement for a reunion show, which was the impetus for The Story of Lovers Rock. “I didn’t set out to make a documentary about Lovers Rock,” he explained in an interview. He happened upon an ad for the reunion show in the London newspaper the Voice, and decided the concert should be captured for posterity.
Musically, Lovers Rock absorbed the 1960s American R&B and Motown that the transplanted West Indians heard in their youth. But the same way that dance hall – echoing much of American gangster rap’s lewdness – made roots reggae irrelevant by the late 1980s, Lovers Rock also bid farewell to its heyday.
One would think the film’s release would be a good excuse to reissue a Lovers Rock greatest hits soundtrack either on CD or digital form, but Shabazz wasn’t too encouraging about those prospects, no doubt tangled in copyright clearance issues. However, fans of music documentaries and cultural nostalgia won’t be bored when The Story of Lovers Rock becomes available on DVD.