Director Steve McQueen Explains Why Music Is the ‘Heartbeat’ of ‘Small Axe’

Jazz Tangcay
·2-min read

Director Steve McQueen’s new five-part anthology series, “Small Axe,” takes starts in the late ’60s and ends in the mid-’80s, following the West Indian community in London through the decades. Although each of the films serves as a standalone, the connective tissue is the Black West Indian experience and music — specifically reggae music.

“With Black people in general and in the U.K., music has always been a part of our survival and refuge,” says McQueen, who will appear on Day 2 (Dec. 1) of Variety’s Music for Screens. He is joined by music supervisor Ed Bailie, composer Mica Levi and musician Dennis Bovell.

At the heart of the music of “Small Axe,” McQueen elaborates: “It’s what we hold on to for hope and guidance — be it in hymns, dub, soul, funk and reggae. It’s always been our heartbeat, and that’s how I went into ‘Small Axe,’ with that in mind. … [Reggae] was rebel music. That was the music that was dangerous.”

Bovell, who is a key figure in the lover’s rock genre, notes that reggae music had been swaying towards a biblical theme and was less about love of people. “I just wanted to borrow and make my style,” he says.

At the time, the lover’s rock genre (“Lover’s Rock” is also the title of the second film in the anthology) was very much male-oriented and so he wanted to bring more women into the genre. “I wanted to do a Diana Ross and the Supremes reggae. I wanted to have a new Gladys Knight.”

McQueen says he and Bovell didn’t have conversations about that particular installment and let Bovell have a free hand because he had lived through that era — he was the era.

On scoring the “Mangrove” installment, Levi stuck to wooden instruments rather than anything plugged in and modern-sounding.

The score was balanced with original songs sourced by Bailie, who adds that it was easier to secure rights to music from Bob Marley’s estate than the lesser-known artists and songs. “Maybe the lack of stature and a lot of instances makes music harder to clear when rights have reverted to people that are hard to track down,” Bailie proffers.

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