The Story of Lovers Rock (UK 2009)

Directed by Menelik Shabazz. 100 minutes, in colour and black and white.

This film was screened at the National Media Museum in Bradford. And the audience were as much part of the event as the film. The film is a documentary about a less-well known music genre and the audience clearly included fans and aficionados. There was applause, even cheers, ‘oohs’ of recognition and frequent laughter. As a less-well informed observer I did not recognise all the tropes but it made for an entertaining and informative viewing.

Before the film I was not even sure what constituted Lovers Rock, (there is a pretty good page on Wikipedia). It is a popular musical genre that grew out of reggae, soul, rhythm and blues and rock in the early 1970s: and it was pre-dominantly popular in Afro-Caribbean communities. You only have to listen once to know that it was a romantic genre. We had scenes of couples dancing and romancing to its mainly slow and alluring rhythms. It seems to have been influenced by the Sound system culture of South London: there is nearly always a strong bass line. Three entrepreneurs, Dennis Harris, John Kpiaye and Dennis Bovell, invented the actual title when they set up a new independent record label.

I wouldn’t have known any titles or artists from the genre, but I remembered some of the songs when represented in the film. The genre offered opportunities in particular to women singers: performers like Carol Thompson and a young female trio Brown Sugar. Better-known successes include Louisa Marks with “Caught You in a Lie” in 1975, followed by Ginger Williams’ “Tenderness”: Janet Kay’s “Silly Games”, which reached number 2 in the UK Singles Chart in 1979: and in 1986 Boris Gardiner’s “I Wanna Wake Up With You”.

Like much Black culture of the period Lovers Rock was marginalised. There were some telling recollections by both producers and artists about how the industry cold-shouldered this very popular music. Only a few of the titles made it into the official UK charts. I can remember back then that a friend used to join a Record company’s minibus of young people who toured record shops buying up a particular single in order to assist it up the charts. Presumably such drives missed out Afro-Caribbean south London.

Shabazz’s film manages to combine a detailed and evocative picture of the music, its artists and its fans. He also laces it in both the wider music and social cultures: the film includes footage of the resistance events of 1981. But the film is also very witty. There are some delightful recollections by fans of both the high and the low points of their Lovers Rock days. In particular, there is a recurring scene with two of the Afro-Caribbean All-Star Comics who provide a sort of Greek chorus to the unfolding story.

The film ended with loud applause and a Q & A with the director: unfortunately I missed this, as I had to run for my train home. This was a shame because Menelik Shabazz is an important and long-time contributor to British film. The Museum’s event also included a rare screening of his 1981 feature, Burning an Illusion. This is one of the key black features of the decade: and Shabazz is able to combine a trenchant portrait of the experiences of the black communities with a sensitive depiction of individual relations. Depressingly the screening relied on a DVD because there is not a 35mm print in good condition available.

There is a website for the film, [still under construction],

Menelik Shabazz is currently trying to develop a distribution for the film. When [hopefully] it arrives near you go and see it.


  1. Roy Stafford

    I’m glad that you were able to make this screening, Keith. I was something of a fan of the music – though more of the Jamaican stars like Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown and John Holt than the homegrown talents that you mention. I was devastated to have to miss the evening and I’ll look out for the DVD.


  2. keith1942

    Good news. Verve Pictures are releasing this film in the UK, apparently on digibeta. However, it seems to have a restricted distribution. Bradford Media Museum have booked it. If you have a friendly local cinema it would be worth giving them a prompt.


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