Review: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2017)

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2017)

Directed by: Sophie Fiennes | 115 minutes | documentary | With: Grace Jones, Jean-Paul Goude and Sly & Robbie

She was one of the first black supermodels, was one of the close friends of artist Andy Warhol, gave the presenter a serious blow at one of her first international television appearances and had a stormy affair with the Swedish muscle bundle Dolph Lundgren. Grace Jones is now seventy, but she has lost very little of her unique androgynous class and style. The make-up is just as lavish, the clothes and headgear just as headstrong and her legs just as long, slender and powerful. In the documentary ‘Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami’ (2017), filmmaker Sophie Fiennes (indeed the sister of actors Ralph and Joseph) closely followed the Jamaican-American diva between 2005 and 2015. The common thread is the concert that Jones gave in 2016 at The Olympia in Dublin. Her approach is that of the ‘fly on the wall’; there are no ‘talking heads’, archive footage is missing, there is no chronological timeline to serve as a guide, and as far as interpretation is concerned, we have to make do with a brief explanation of the title prior to the film (‘Bloodlight’ is slang for the red light that when recording in a music studio; ‘bami’ is a traditional Jamaican flatbread). The idea is that through Jones’s lyrics and her visits to family in Jamaica, we can learn more about Jones, her background and motivations. Fiennes only partially succeeds in this aim; ‘Bloodlight and Bami’ is in fact just a bit too experimental in design to appeal to the masses, but with its different approach it fits Jones completely.

In ‘Bloodlight and Bami’ Fiennes tries to intertwine the two worlds that merge in Grace Jones. On the one hand there is the star, the diva who gives concerts and performances all over the world. Who dresses up in hotel rooms in Paris, Moscow or New York for a public performance, indulges in champagne breakfasts and shows himself in full regalia to the outside world. Jones likes to be in control and makes no bones about it when things don’t go the way she wants. For example, when she has to sing ‘La Vie en Rose’ amidst scantily clad ladies during recordings for a French television show. ‘I look like a lesbian whore madam,’ she protests. ‘Where are the male dancers?’ An employee who has forgotten to pay a hotel bill is beaten in a heated telephone conversation. ‘Sometimes you just have to play the bitch’, is her telling comment when the conversation has ended. This is the Grace Jones as we expect her to be. But the diva seems completely in control of what she does and what she doesn’t include in this documentary. Of her private life, only her earliest childhood is discussed. Well, her former life partner Jean-Paul Goude, their son Paolo, newborn granddaughter and some old friends (musicians Sly & Robbie for example) are trotting out. But how her life really stands today, Jones deliberately keeps mysterious. She puts on a show where she shows everything, certainly in the literal sense, but in fact reveals nothing.

The superstar’s past is explored in conversations with siblings, cousins, old friends and neighbors she meets on a vacation trip to Jamaica. Many people know that Jones had a rough childhood. Her deeply religious parents left for the United States and initially left their children with grandmother and her second husband Peart, nicknamed Mas P, who regularly disciplined them and then hid behind the Bible. A painted toenail already gave Grace a beating. The abuse continued until she was 13, when she and her siblings were reunited with their parents and moved to New York. How she was subsequently discovered as a model, how she entered the New York art scene of the 1970s, ended up in Paris and entered the film and music world remains curiously completely unspoken. While it must have been just as important to shaping the woman Jones is today as her early childhood. Fiennes does not ask questions, does not go into depth and just observes; it is Jones who is firmly in control. What did those traumatic events from her childhood in Jamaica really do to her? What about the love-hate relationship with the church (Grace watches mother Marjorie sing in the church where brother Noel is pastor)? We just have to fill it in for ourselves.

Archive images had made ‘Bloodlight and Bami’ more complete and given the viewer more grip. But Fiennes holds on firmly to the choice she made to only use images of the here and now. The concert images are fantastically designed and underline exactly why Grace Jones is still the fascinating, self-assured diva as we know her, even though she is now seventy and a grandmother. The holiday images in Jamaica are grainy and restless, shot with a handheld camera, probably to sharpen the contrast between the two worlds united in Grace Jones. “I’m only doing this because an album has to be paid for,” Jones says at one point as she prepares for television shooting. Is that also why she worked on Fiennes’ film? Either way, she makes sure to keep a tight rein on things and don’t let go of anything she doesn’t want to let go. ‘Bloodlight and Bami’ is therefore less revealing than the film itself thinks it is, and because of its experimental approach the average viewer can’t do much with it. They will undoubtedly have more questions at the end than at the beginning.

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