I have to do some emotional blackmail.
There’s a moment early on in Sophie Fiennes‘ documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami wherein the titular artist films a new music video-style performance of her 1977 hit disco-era cover of Édith Piaf‘s “La Vie en Rose.” She goes to the studio blind to what the imagery will look like, the director or whomever simply asking her to sit on the chair at the set’s center upon arriving. The crowd is told to cheer and the music begins so Jones can sing as dancers in lingerie gyrate around her. She confronts the people in charge afterwards, chastising them for not sending her a photo (which I’m surprised she didn’t demand before agreeing to the shoot) because it went against her image to be shown as a pimp at a brothel.
The scene is a fantastic distillation of what I have to imagine Jones has faced throughout her life. Here she is—a performance artist with a keen understanding of image, symbolism, and visual interpretation—decades into an iconic international career and this guy is laughing at her incredulity while trying to assuage her fears with, “But it all looks beautiful.” I would have stood up with applause if she went over and punched him in the face (a feeling condoned by a later anecdote about doing just that to someone many years earlier on live television). She talks often about having been around the block way too many times to take the crap handed to her and it’s depressing to see people still treat her with patronizing disrespect.
But if there was ever someone to shine as an example of what to do in such situations, Grace Jones is she. Fiennes—who followed the musician, model, actor, Renaissance woman whenever invited to a new place, reunion, or show during a five-year period—captures candid moments as Jones puts her thought process, need to manipulate, and strength to stand tall against unconscionable adversity at the hands of collaborators and employees refusing to complete an agreed upon task onscreen to stand the test of time. We watch as this legend from humble beginnings in British Jamaica throws her weight around to survive amidst a cutthroat industry and complete her first album (Hurricane) in twenty years. The tenacity shown to bring her unwavering artistic vision to life is inspiring.
That’s not all Bloodlight and Bami offers, though. This film isn’t a tour documentary showing the behind the scenes maneuvers of an album that’s already a decade old itself. There are aspects of that because it was happening while Fiennes was entrenched in Jones’ entourage, but so were a lot of things. The filmmaker instead has edited together a sort of collage intertwining past and present with figures that have come and gone existing besides memories both painful and serene. Fiennes filmed the collective remembrance of family in Jamaica who share the harrowing tales of a childhood under the abusive control of “Mas P;” an intimate conversation with Jean-Paul Goude, the father of her son Paulo; and firm debates with fellow artists to deliver on their promises.
There’s also concert footage showing the elaborate wardrobe and lighting effects on songs like “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Pull Up to the Bumper.” There are meticulous segues from stories told to the songs they’ve inspired (“Williams’ Blood”) and brief asides of pure enjoyment wherein Jones parties to all hours of the night as though still twenty years old. If not for the registration sticker on their Jamaican car or the ability to date the newer songs she sings, you could watch this film and believe it were made a long time ago. It has this timeless quality to it thanks in part to Jones’ agelessness in both appearance and action. This isn’t a woman in her late-fifties hoping to reclaim past glory. This is the immortal Grace Jones.
And that reality is great. The way in which Fiennes captures her in myriad states of being either wholly herself or covered in artifice disorients us in a way that makes the figure onscreen an embodiment of Jones’ essence rather than a physical depiction of her at any single moment of her expansive life. As a concept this artistic decision is the perfect way to capture someone as enigmatic as Jones, but as a two-hour movie it can get difficult to maintain interest. Inevitably the finished product is broken into chapters and some are more captivating than others. You start to treat the performances as filler preventing you from basking in the glory of her unfiltered antics, visual distractions that slow down the otherwise brisk pace of information.
It’s tough to think of how this could be avoided, though. Jones is such a big personality with vast interests and facets that putting them all in one film becomes impossible. Because while it is a document of five years on the surface, it’s breadth spans a lifetime. I could watch an entire feature of what it takes to produce a concert like the one shown and another of Jones recalling the emotional stops along her journey from the Caribbean to superstardom. The way these two things are mixed places the result in a weird position of feeling too long despite not being long enough to do its subject justice. It’s so dense and yet somehow incomplete—as though we’re watching the abridged theatrical version of a ten part series.
But it still lifts the curtain on an artist often seen in two-dimensional fashion portraits brimming with animated life beneath the make-up and hats. We hear about the adolescence that created her need to escape an oppressively religious existence and embrace the hedonism it sought to beat from her before it ever crossed her mind. We learn about the origins of her anger, desire for pleasure, and open-book style keeping her active, aware, and forever alive. We watch her onstage and get the appeal if we hadn’t already and listen to her speak of sunsets and sunrises back in Jamaica to understand the necessity of their beauty within a darkened past. We realize Grace Jones is too singular to be placed in one cinematic box—even her own.
[1-3] A scene from Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, courtesy Kino Lorber