Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami December 15, 2018
1 Hr., 53 Mins.
ophie Fiennes, the director of the new documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, isn’t interested in defining her subject. This is not a talking-head-interview-addled, narratively clean, archival-footage-seeped rock doc — even though concert footage is plenteous — but a splattered canvas. Specifically, it is a collection of intimate behind-the-scenes dramas, shot over a period lasting roughly from the pre-stages
of the production of Jones’ 2008 comeback album, Hurricane, to now.
The intent, I think, is to let us loose in the world of Grace Jones — to, even if cursorily, show us what it is like to prepare, and then knock out, a live performance, for instance, or what it is like to visit with relatives in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Jones’ birthplace. Perhaps Fiennes concluded that there was no need for further mythologizing. Jones has, after all, already autobiographied herself — with I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, from 2015 — and through her fashion legacy, musical work, and filmography has Jones been idolized.
Viewers looking for a consummate portrait of the indefinable multitalent may be dismayed. Viewers attentive to the forewarnings that Bloodlight and Bami is an odd, collage-like profile, will still likely hanker for an orthodoxy-ridden documentary afterward. But in a way is the scatteredness complementary to a figure as shape-shifting and itinerant as Jones. Never has she been anchored to a specific part of her many personae, and never has she allowed anyone to define her. (One could argue that the iconic — albeit troublesomely exoticized — Jones-centric portraiture by the French artist Jean-Paul Goude, with whom Jones has closely worked and had a son, did just that. Though Jones, at one point in the movie, clarifies that everything they did together was a close collaboration.)
Bloodlight and Bami is spellbinding, even if its lacking of an ascertainable structure does eventually take its toll. The live performances are disparate, but methodically placed. An untreated rendition of “Amazing Grace" is used to reflect the pious ties within her family (her brother is a preacher); a talk-show recital of “La Vie en Rose,” characterized by throbbing, pink lighting and a throng of scantily clad backup dancers, works as a catalyst to showcase the seriousness with which Jones takes her art. (She launches at the stage director once the performance ends for essentially creating an image in which she is a madam, the surrounding dancers her property.) Others simply highlight her onstage might. Though her range is limited, she belts with the edge of a vocal-run-loving, capital-S Singer, and prances about the stage with the same vigor she did the runway.
At first, the insertions of nonfiction seem Fiennes’ way of constructing something of a storyline. But eventually, when it becomes evident that the director is going for day-in-the-life nonchalance, they chiefly can be appreciated as thrilling, linearity-damning inside looks at Jones' background and temperament. The majority of the moments set in Spanish Town find Jones discussing her childhood with her family; much of the time is spent unpacking how much her abusive stepfather, whom everyone refers to as Mas P, influenced her stage presence. Two scenes see her lambasting collaborators on the phone — once Sly and Robbie, the production duo whom she worked with heavily on Hurricane, once someone who sounds like they’re in a managerial position — for bungling their responsibilities.
Later, she reunites with Goude, to shoot the cover of the aforementioned album (their relationship is only evasively discussed); toward the end of the film, Jones gingerly holds her new grandchild. We watch her put on makeup myriad times. She jumps from the United Kingdom to Jamaica to France and switches codes fluently. Fiennes becomes enveloped in the background, as if she were Joan Didion, in these moments. It’s that fly-on-the-wall, style-jettisoning stance that makes these scenes, as individualistic and sometimes seemingly random as they are, magnetic.
But if these scenes and observations are cannily and unambiguously delivered, what is less clear, besides the fact that Fiennes is keen on plopping us down on what is the world of Grace Jones, is whether she is aiming at uncomplicated humanization, or, like, say, Goude, diagonally regarding her as an art object. Little is conventionally “revealing.” Perhaps Bloodlight and Bami, then, is both humanistic and idolatrous — a mixture of things bettered because it cannot be easily defined. Just like its subject. B