Film / TVMusic

‘grace jones: bloodlight and bami’ breaks the mold of documentary film-making to show a rare look at the legend’s many facets

October 25, 2017
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Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami isn’t your average music doc. But then, Grace Jones has never been your average artist. As anyone who saw her at the 2015 AFROPUNK Fest in Brooklyn can attest, watching her perform, the mercurial, androgynous, ageless, Grace Jones cuts a mythic figure. Behind her trademark masks and haute fashion costumes, Grace Jones is a warm, generous, performer, but larger than life; nearly unknowable.

On Bloodlight and Bami, filmmaker Sophie Fiennes flips the script of the traditional music doc, creating a kaleidoscopic image of a kaleidoscopic artist. Here, Jones contains universes, she is at once a legendary performer, a savvy buisnesswoman, a mother, grandmother, sister, friend, a queer icon, a generous collaborator, a producer who refuses to compromise, an artist fiercely protective of their legacy, an industry veteran who looks back on it all and laughs. Without a framing device or the usual parade of talking heads, Sophie Fiennes shows quite literally what many of us have been saying for decades: Grace Jones is everything.

Let’s get this out of the way: This is not a documentary for the uninitiated. If you don’t already know why Grace Jones is a legend, Bloodlight and Bami isn’t here to convince you. Fiennes eschews the traditional music documentary format of talking heads and archive footage. The documentary denies linear time, taking place roughly over the course of about 5 years during the making of Jones’ 2008 Hurricane album. The first interview, the first bit of narrative context, occurs 35 minutes into the film, and rarely recurs. Instead of a historical array of performance footage, most of the music is from a concert staged specifically for the film in Dublin. It’s at once artificial and constructed while creating an organic throughline to the film, in many ways it’s the same tangle of contradictions that has made Grace Jones herself so compelling.

As the performance of her signature song “Slave to the Rhythm” wraps, we cut to Grace Jones greeting fans out the stage door. The generous but larger than life diva is on full display, before we immediately follow Jones on a road trip through her native Jamaica with her son Paulo and niece Chantal. The contrast is striking. From the way she code switches when talking to her heavily white male fanbase to collaborators to her children to her mother and siblings in Jamaica, she’s rarely not playing a role. The truth of her performance is in the agency: are you seeing who you want to see or who Grace Jones wants you to see? The truth of the human at the heart of it emerges from the myriad roles she plays. The road trip provides the closest thing Bloodlight and Bami has to a framing device. The familial warmth is underscored by the violence of their upbringing. Nostalgic childhood stories are haunted by the memory of her cruel disciplinarian step-father Mas P.

Each scene is carefully chosen to show a different facet of Grace Jones. A moment of “emotional blackmail” to convince longtime collaborators Sly & Robbie to play ball on the new record is at once funny, and severe. She’s not afraid to do what she needs to do to get what she wants, even from people she cares about. And she gets it. Later, another side of the businesswoman emerges. Backstage at a TV performance in Paris, she criticizes the tacky staging to the show’s producer. “I look like the lesbian madam in a whorehouse!” She complains of a set that finds her all in black, flanked by a troupe of Corey Feldmenian white women in white lingerie. But when after a long series of defensive mansplaining, the producer finally agrees to cut the dancers, Jones’ concern shifts to the dancers themselves; hardworking artists who are just doing a job beneath the same male gaze she’s made outflanking into an artform. With no time to restage the choreography, she softens. The iconography of the performance may run counter to what she stands for, but so does denying female artists work.

The film is light on retrospective moments. Small anecdotes from her brother, an illuminating scene where she discusses the infamous on-air fight with BBC personality Russell Harty, and a candid conversation with French graphic designer Jean-Paul Goude. Otherwise, Bloodlight and Bami is a document of Grace Jones in the here and now. As an artist, she has always navigated the line between transcending time, space, and identity, and exemplifying it. Why should a documentary about her do any less? Bloodlight and Bami may disappoint the unanointed for not telling the story of Grace Jones life, but instead it does something much more rare and essential: it shows us who she is.