The Music of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe Series

There’s a scene in Lovers Rock, the second film in Steve McQueen’s 5-part Small Axe series, where the music fades out and revelers at a house party sing along to the chorus of Janet Kay’s chart-topping, genre-defining hit “Silly Games.” As the party-goers strain to reach the idiosyncratic highs of the song that made Kay the Queen of Lovers Rock, the genre of tender soulful reggae, the atmosphere exudes Black joy.

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“Steve had Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” in the script from first draft, which I was over the moon to read — it’s such a classic,” says Ed Bailie, the film’s music supervisor. “No one can resist trying (and failing) to hit the high notes.” Kay’s song made her the first Black British-born female to reach the top of the UK charts, in 1979, and it playing out onscreen is one of the many memorable moments across the set of 5 films the Oscar-winning filmmaker is releasing, one week at a time, on Amazon Prime Video.

The series title references a proverb popularized by Bob Marley in his song, “Small Axe” — “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe” — and chronicles events in the lives of London’s West Indian immigrants during the 60s, 70s and 80s. Each film has its own distinct music sense, created by Bailie, from Leland Music, who worked on supervising the songs used throughout the series, together with Mica Levi, who’s composed for films like Jackie and Under the Skin, and the director himself, known for his style of unflinching filmmaking, from Hunger to Shame and 12 Years a Slave. The series has 5 titles: Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education.

“Each film has it’s own musical identity (with crossing points); the popular lovers rock and dub tunes in Lovers Rock, roots reggae & catalogue dives in Alex Wheatle, more soul in Red, White and Blue,” says Bailie. “They’re each true to their subject and time. Authenticity was hugely important. We wanted viewers of Lovers Rock to feel nostalgia for the blues parties they’d attended in their youth, and to paint the setting in each film with interesting but believable music picks that would excite new fans and spark memories for others.”

The first film, Mangrove, tells the true story of the Mangrove 9 who were put on trial for clashing with the police during protests. Starring Leticia Wright and Shaun Parkes, the courtroom drama

details the first judicial acknowledgement of racially-motivated behavior within the Metropolitan Police. Lovers Rock follows, and it is the least antagonistic of the 5 films, as it is set within a house party on one night. “The musical arc of the night was plotted to be a true and natural blues party, from rocksteady, reggae and pop, to the slow dance of lovers rock, then breaking out into the deeper end of the night with big dub tunes like The Revolutionaries, Augustus Pablo & The Aggrovators, Leroy Smart, We The People Band” says Bailie.

“The approach on set was very natural and fluid,” says Bailie, says of the standout “Silly Games” scene, which allows the full song to play out with no edits or cuts. “Steve had nurtured the vibe of the room, the comfort for everyone to be loose and free. He didn’t force the moment, he created the space and mood, which let the cast create and run with it. That’s a magical scene that hits me every time. It’s over 11 minutes but never feels it (and what other director would be bold enough to let the scene run for 11 minutes?), I’m just swept away by it every time, transported there.”

They enlisted Barbados-born guitarist and producer, Dennis Bovell for the scene too. “We brought in the lovers rock (and dub) legend and architect of “Silly Games”, in to make a sneaky cameo. His deep booming voice is unmistakable in the crowd and makes that scene all the more special to me.” And as Bailie adds, “The freedom of the film set is visceral in the final cut, as Steve so masterfully conjured.” This all the more adds to the experience of Black joy this film shows — a joy that flows in spite of the attacks and prejudice that play out in the other films of the set.

In the third film, which releases next week, John Boyega stars as a young man who wants to change the police force from the inside and so becomes a police officer. Red, White and Blue is based on the true story of Leroy Logan, and another standout music moment, which takes place between Boyega’s Leroy and his character’s father, uses Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” “This was one of Steve’s picks and a great one at that,” says Bailie. “We have a couple of Al Green cues in Red, White and Blue, including “For The Good Times” over the end credits.”

As Bailie explains, careful consideration is given to how and when to use songs. “There are always standout scenes when reading a script where you can sense music will play an important role. Sometimes it’s not clear yet whether that’ll be original score or a source track, and sometimes it all changes in the edit (maybe lyrics don’t let the scene breathe enough, or the scene plays out at a different pace to your imagination) but the pieces start falling into place from first page turn and gradually evolve as we move through to the final edit,” he says.

Small Axe had many moments to line music up from script stage. I love Leroy and his friend Leee (in Red, White and Blue) dancing to Beggar & Co, or the poignancy of Alex Wheatle discovering reggae to The Abyssinians whilst facing a racist attack at school, the whole of Lovers Rock playing out a true blues party, and moments like Frank Critchlow raising a class to celebrate their first night trading as everyone sings “Jean & Dinah” in Mangrove.”

There were plenty of music choices to be made upfront, Bailie explains. “We often had music playing while the cameras were rolling, and characters singing in various scenes, which all needs to be cleared pre-shoot. Sometimes there’s a scripted track that can’t clear for whatever reason, or is a placeholder awaiting new ideas, so we’d share playlists and work out the right tone for the scene.” In post production, the process becomes a really fluid, quick turnaround of sharing track ideas with the edit and getting them cleared. “The anthology is dense with music, from incidental moments to poignant needle drops, and we built a world of playlists ready to draw ideas from when they were needed.”

And for fans of the films and the music within them, Bailie hints that a special soundtrack of sorts may soon be available.

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