The music of Steve McQueen: inside his ‘Small Axe’ soundtrack

With an album due this Record Store Day – the acclaimed filmmaker takes us on a tuneful trip down memory lane

It’s an overcast weekday morning in London, but as Steve McQueen half-sings, half-hums the melody to Junior English’s soulful reggae track ‘After Tonight’, the clouds seem to part for a sunny moment. “I just love it,” says the decorated filmmaker between bars. “It’s so romantic.”

The song plays during an intimate slow dance in Lovers Rock, part of McQueen’s BAFTA-nominated anthology series about the West Indian community in London between the 1960s and 1980s. The collective of films, called Small Axe, aired on the BBC in 2020 and boasts John Boyega, Letitia Wright and Naomi Ackie among its star-studded cast. For Record Store Day (June 12), McQueen has collaborated with Motown Records’ UK imprint to release a soundtrack album from the five films (including limited edition vinyl) for the first time.

“Vinyl is hugely important to me,” says the director, dressed down in a salmon pink overshirt and white tee for our chat via Zoom. “Especially growing up in a West Indian household, but also growing up with friends who listened to a lot of John Peel in the mid-’80s. It was all about the vinyl.”

“Vinyl is hugely important to me”

Music has been integral to McQueen’s films for a long time. Shame – his 2011 drama starring Michael Fassbender as a sex addict – created a classic New York aesthetic with chart bangers from Blondie, Chic and Tom Tom Club (“We couldn’t afford Talking Heads,” he laughs). The history-making, triple Oscar-winner 12 Years A Slave saw both rising and established Black performers cover 19th century spiritual songs to deeply moving effect. Three years ago, heist thriller Widows featured Michael Jackson, Nina Simone and Al Green on its soundtrack, each of whom McQueen holds a personal connection with.

For Small Axe though, McQueen went even deeper. Working with artists, creators and music supervisor Ed Bailie (Top Boy), he crafted a musical landscape of contemporary artists – from Al Green to Toots and the Maytals – that not only transports you back to the small spaces and subcultures of the time, but also elevates the stories of those on screen.

“This music became a way to make people feel vulnerable, empathy and romance,” says McQueen. “It changed how sound waves and unstructured music can sound to a being. It allowed people to feel whole.”

Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen and Sheyi Cole on the set of ‘Alex Wheatle’. CREDIT: BBC Pictures

McQueen’s love of music began in childhood, Ealing, west London to be precise, where he was born in 1969. He absorbed a melting pot of influences from his mum and dad, who emigrated from Grenada and Trinidad. “My father would play Jim Reeves and country and western music on Sunday religiously,” he remembers, and although the young McQueen “hated” the weekly ritual, Reeves’ velvety baritone pops up several times throughout Small Axe (in both Mangrove and Red, White and Blue). His mother, meanwhile, blasted the music from her teenage years. “She came to the UK when she was 15 and had records by Aretha Franklin and the Small Faces.”

It was McQueen’s Aunt Molly, though, who introduced him to calypso and reggae – perhaps the biggest influence on the Small Axe soundtrack – and who took him as a child to his first “blues party” (a local gathering equipped with massive sound systems, which would charge a small entry fee on the door). His memory is confined to falling asleep in a room upstairs: “I woke up with all these bloody coats on top of me.”

As he grew older, McQueen’s tastes changed again – filling his teenage brain with the sounds of soul, house and the Top 40 (the first record he bought was Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’). Soon, he was going to parties himself, paying his friend Peter Baptiste (“the man with the music”), to record mixtapes for him to play in between nights out. “I listened to anything that was, what do they call it, ‘alternative’?” he says. “Alternative to what? It was just good music.”

Steve McQueen
CREDIT: Getty

Sceptical though he is of the term, ‘alternative’ is a good word to describe the next bit of McQueen’s life. Stints at Chelsea College of Arts and then Goldsmiths in his twenties preceded his winning the prestigious Turner Prize for visual artwork in 1999. At the same time, he was churning out black-and-white (sometimes silent) short films inspired by Andy Warhol. It was not until the late 2000s that the fledgling filmmaker made his breakthrough in mainstream cinema with two Michael Fassbender movies (2008 prison drama Hunger and then Shame).

One a drama about striking prisoners who refuse to eat, the other a slow-burning portrait of addiction, both films use music as a way of enhancing the story. Take Shame, for example. In one lingering scene, Fassbender’s troubled on-screen sister (played by Carey Mulligan) gives a raw, sorrowful rendition of Liza Minnelli’s ‘New York, New York’. “That is not a happy song,” says McQueen, before singing back a few of the lyrics (“I want to be a part of it”, “These vagabond shoes…”) to emphasise his point. “You’re at the bottom, but you want to be at the top. That’s a blues song to me.” The director spoke with Mulligan about the choice of track and brought in a vocal coach to work with her on the performance. “She was very emotional. It was amazing.”

Thanks to the success of Shame (one Golden Globe nomination, two BAFTA nods), McQueen was able to put more budget behind original music for his next movies. On 12 Years A Slave, everyone from John Legend to Alicia Keys and Alabama Shakes contributed to the film’s soundtrack. For his next film, 2018 heist thriller Widows, McQueen went even bigger, seeking out soul-pop megastar Sade (a personal hero). “She is an enigma, it was difficult to even get in contact with her,” McQueen says. The singer, it transpired, had watched the 1980s ITV show upon which the film had been based and resonated with it, and so agreed to write an original song, ‘The Big Unknown’, for the soundtrack. “It’s a heavy song. It’s not just about surviving, it’s about living.”

“Michael Kiwanuka covering Nina Simone sounds like a music box being opened”

For the extended soundtrack to Small Axe, McQueen has pulled in some similarly spectacular collaborators. The standout is Mercury Prize-winner Michael Kiwanuka, who contributed a distilled, dreamlike cover of Nina Simone’s ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’. McQueen had been familiar with Kiwanuka’s work before he boarded the project, and says his version of the song is “like a music box being opened”.

“[The song] is a rallying call, it has a galvanising message to it that people have the capacity to do anything,” he says of Simone’s original. “With [Michael’s] voice, there’s a simplicity to it, but also the ability to sink into your being without you even being aware of it. He was perfect for it.”

A cover of Janet Kay’s late-’70s classic ‘Silly Games’ by London-born Grammy nominee Tiana Major9 is also included. “We spoke on the phone and she was telling me about her West Indies background and how she wanted to approach the song,” says McQueen. “It’s a huge anthem, you can’t come at it half-heartedly.”

To most directors, this stellar list of collaborators would suffice – but McQueen is no ordinary director. Alongside the newly-recorded songs and killer curated playlist, he also enlisted the help of composer Mica Levi to create an original score. “Mica is one of the coolest people I know,” he says, after waxing lyrical about Levi’s work on acclaimed sci-fi Under The Skin and Natalie Portman vehicle Jackie. “If I was a kid in school, I would want her to be my best friend.”

Levi paired the anthology’s debut chapter Mangrove with an arrangement made up exclusively of wooden instruments. “The West Indies was all about things that came to hand,” says McQueen. “So for me it was about guitars and steel drums, which were basically made from American oil barrels. It all had to be organic. It all had to be things that you can touch, and the human contact with the instrument.”

During our interview today, McQueen talks quickly and concisely – but is generous with his answers. Often, he breaks gaze to look off-screen, his thoughts drifting as he remembers a song or the moment a family member first played it to him. Occasionally, he murmurs a few jumbled lyrics – more to himself than as a performance for NME. It’s fun to listen in as he rattles off anecdotes about Small Axe – and how he chose the music for it.

“‘Lovers Rock’ was made for the women”

For example, McQueen handpicked Al Green’s cover of the Bee Gees‘ ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart’ for a shared moment between John Boyega’s aspiring police officer and his father in Red, White and Blue. McQueen preferred Green’s version of the song, but the Bee Gees’ story behind its writing felt right for that moment in the film.

“I love the tune because for the Bee Gees it represented this idea of a union. These brothers had gone their separate ways and then come back again,” he says. “In Red White and Blue, the father and son are also trying to mend their relationship.”

Some of the choices were more instinctual. In Lovers Rock, the closing track, a furiously energetic dub track called ‘Kunta Kinte’ by The Revolutionaries, went off “like a dog whistle” when the filmmaker listened to it. “It made me want to smash things,” he says, moving slightly to an imaginary beat.

Lovers Rock
Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn in ‘Lovers Rock’. CREDIT: BBC

‘After Tonight’, the soft, promising love song that McQueen serenaded NME with at the start of our conversation, was selected with a particular audience in mind. “Lovers Rock was made for the women,” explains McQueen. “At the time it was all reggae or hard reggae and dub. There was no space for the women.”

An extension of this was ‘Silly Games’, a song that McQueen and his co-writer Courttia Newland had outlined in the script for the film. It’s at the heart of one of Lovers Rock’s definitive scenes, and as captured on the new soundtrack, sees party dwellers reaching for the high notes of Kay’s milestone dancefloor filler well past the song’s closing bars. The scene was the product of McQueen carefully setting up the dynamics of the party, and then stepping back to see what would happen.

“Sometimes you have to let your hands off of the steering wheel and see where it leads,” he says. “It was a spiritual thing. You’re in a situation where you have a Black director, a Black director of photography, everyone surrounding you is Black. You feel that you can be free to be yourself. That doesn’t happen in film and TV, especially in this country.”

“If Bob Marley didn’t exist, a lot of people would’ve had breakdowns”

The music of Small Axe plays like an informed, carefully composed love letter to an oft-ignored period in British history. Those who have watched it have found new life in the songs and artists that have helped to tell its stories. The anthology wouldn’t exist without the music. Even its title is an homage to the 1973 track written by Bob Marley, who McQueen believes to be one of music’s great saviours.

“I think if Bob Marley didn’t exist, a lot of people would’ve had breakdowns,” he says. “He gave an understanding of oneself in an environment that wasn’t particularly inviting. That’s why from day one, the series was called Small Axe.”

Music has informed McQueen’s life and, by extension, his career. It’s a necessary means of connecting the filmmaker’s past to his present, as well as of the communities’ he focuses on. Find us in the queue on Record Store Day.

Steve McQueen’s official soundtrack to ‘Small Axe’ releases on Record Store Day (June 12) via Motown Records UK