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Assembling the Black music soundscapes of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe”

Small Axe Music (Ed Bailie)

Welcome back to the Spool’s weekly interview podcast, More of a Comment, Really‚Ķ, where editor-in-chief Clint Worthington talks to actors, filmmakers, composers and other figures from the realm of film and television.

Spend any amount of time in Film Twitter circles anytime in the last six months, and someone’s bound to bring up one of the most resplendent musical moments in the hell-year that was 2020: ten minutes in Steve McQueen‘s groovy tone poem Lovers Rock. Two-thirds of the way through the film, the packed floor of a London house party in the 1980s slow dances to Janey Kay’s delicate, flirtatious “Silly Games”. They’re so lost in the rhythms and gyrations that, even after the song fades out, the collective erupts with Kay’s sumptuous lyrics, everyone singing together to keep the song going just a little bit longer.

Those moments and more are some of the most vital components to the success of Small Axe, McQueen’s five-film anthology about the lives of West Indian immigrant communities in England through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, humming and swaying with the reggae, disco, and rocksteady music that so infused themselves in those disparate neighborhoods. Whether it’s the sweet sounds of the titular genre in the nearly-wordless Lovers Rock, or the Brixton-set underground protest music that feeds Alex Wheatle, or the top-40 R&B hits playing at the titular Mangrove Inn in Mangrove, Small Axe is little without the soundtrack that underpins all of its period authenticity and riveting snapshots of Black joy and solidarity in the face of racism and systemic oppression.

NOW STREAMING:

Key to that process was music supervisor Ed Bailie, who sat down with me for the podcast to talk about the challenges of scoring for five different movies, finding the balance between crate-digging for obscure tracks and playing the hits, and working with collaborators to find just the right sound for McQueen’s disparate stories. And along the way, we also touch on being cognizant of one’s role as a white creative among Black collaborators telling Black stories.

Listen to the podcast above, or listen to the official Small Axe soundtrack playlist on Spotify below.

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Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as one of the founders of the website/podcast Alcohollywood in 2011. He is also a Senior Writer at Consequence of Sound, as well as the co-host/producer of Travolta/Cage. You can also find his freelance work at IndieWire, UPROXX, Syfy Wire, The Takeout, and Crooked Marquee.