Lovers Rock began as a small record company mostly associated with a romantic, swoony kind of British reggae that was pointedly apolitical, meaning that the music was political in a deceptively indirect sense. Like Motown in America, Lovers Rock eventually became a genre onto itself, a kind of music that was characterized by a still-powerfully explicitly despairing emphasis on the personal, the intimate. Blossoming in Britain in the 1970s, Lovers Rock was a genre that spoke of the persecution of the Jamaican immigrants, who were often banned from pubs and in danger of being beaten or framed for crimes both petty and severe. Essentially playing to people on cultural home arrest, this music was the soundtrack to the British-Jamaican house parties that constituted much of their social scene. A scene that, like American blues from the 1940s to the 1950s, would eventually catch on with mainstream (read: white) audiences. Sadly, this impassioned partial prototype for modern R&B had something in else in common with American blues: Many of its artists, due to disorganization at least partially born from the culture shock of breaking through to mainstream consciousness, would be pitifully compensated only to soon fade into the background as slicker more recent generations found a way to make a buck off their innovations.
The Story of Lovers Rock, an unapologetically single-minded appeal for the legacy of this music, is amateurish but appealingly shaggy. Director Menelik Shabazz’s arc, which is basically a traditional rise-and-fall story, is sloppily told, as we’re never given an entirely clear portrait of the business machinations that buried a number of the prominent Lovers Rock artists. Shabazz has a fan’s zeal and impatience that causes him to see-saw from incident to incident with little in the way of a through line. But there’s also a freedom to that mild incoherence, as we’re given enough to assume that the rise and fall of Lovers Rock is essentially the same as the rise and fall of any other briefly popular and hopelessly naïve movement anyway: A capitalist organism figured out a way to synthesis these artists and quickly discarded them.
If Shabazz had more efficiently adhered to his story’s three-act structure he may have made a less interesting movie, reducing a specific genre to just another fad that died a traditional death. But Shabazz is clearly more interested in episodic little tidbits that capture the tone of Lovers Rock more than with a recitation of dates and incidents. There are the usual talking-head interview pieces with prominent figures, which are somehow boring and poignant at once, but there are also performances, such as of Janet Kay singing her stunningly sexy “Silly Games,” as well as staged vignettes with awkward lovers that suggest to a modern viewer the intoxication of a brief moment in British culture that many have never heard of but that continues to inspire musicians of varying styles and nationalities. The Story of Lovers Rock, while awkwardly told, manages to at least suggest the kind of story that tends to be the most romantic and intoxicating: a story of ultimately doomed love.