DIR: Sophie Fiennes • PRO: Katie Holly, Sophie Fiennes, Beverly Jones, Shani Hinton • DOP: Remko Schnorr • ED: Sophie Fiennes • CAST: Grace Jones, Jean-Paul Goude, Sly & Robbie
Mixing with the likes of Andy Warhol, releasing hit singles such as ‘Pull Up to the Bumper’, and appearing as a Bond villain in A View to a Kill; Grace Jones has become a revered cultural icon. She is a towering presence who has challenged traditional notions of both femininity and masculinity which has benefitted her shapeshifting image in the process. She’s a model, an actor, a musician; but what do we really know about this modern icon’s private life away from the flashbulbs, the stage, or the big screen?
With Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, director Sophie Fiennes follows Grace Jones over a period of ten years, offering entry points into her family life, the recording studio, and some offstage drama. We see Grace in her native Jamaica with her family at church or recording some vocals in the studio, and these fly-on-the-wall segments interweave with live performances of songs which were recorded at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre in September 2016.
These live performances quickly become the highlight of this documentary. Grace’s energy and charisma is evident and the performer within her brings vast amounts of life to each song performed. This aspect is then greatly aided by the live footage captured by cinematographer Remko Schnorr with its grainy texture and appearance. Her performances may have been recorded in Dublin but Schnorr transports us to a ’70s New York City-esque club where Jones honed her craft and this is helped by Eiko Ishioka’s simple, yet innovative stage design.
Her step-grandfather, Mas P, is mentioned throughout the documentary and becomes a narrative constant. According to Grace and her family’s stories, this man was a stern and abusive presence within their lives. Then, Fiennes can utilise Grace mentioning how she adopted this overbearing power within her own stage performances and follows up with a live performance of Grace Jones inhabiting Mas P onstage.
Offstage, the life of Grace Jones is not thoroughly fleshed out and this is the dominant drawback of the documentary. The influence of Mas P is mentioned and we see her in Jamaica where she becomes just another Jamaican, not Grace Jones. However, the fly-on-the-wall features are more anecdotal than insightful or revelatory and there is no real narrative thread. Yes, we are treated to her recording a song or seeing her dote over her newly-born granddaughter, but the documentary doesn’t delve deep enough into Grace’s thoughts on topics such as her career and legacy. A fan at the beginning of the documentary waiting in line for her autograph says that she’s “worth waiting for!”. However, on the basis of this documentary, she’ll keep us waiting to offer more about her perspective on her life.
Although, some of the footage Fiennes uses excellently captures the true funny nature of Grace. There is a sequence surrounding an appearance on French television where Grace exits the stage aghast at the tackiness of the set that left her feeling like a “brothel madame”. Fiennes also includes a public tête-à-tête between Grace and production duo Sly and Robbie on the telephone, as well as some hotel drama where Jones refuses to leave her presidential suite unless her contract negotiations are resolved. These moments are humorous and do offer insights into aspects of Grace’s overall personality.
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is a solid documentary, despite its overall narrative mediocrity. Recent music documentaries such as Amy or Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me offer solid narratives rather than the anecdotal snippets here. However, perhaps Fiennes, and Grace herself, wanted to convey as much normality or humanity as possible without discussing her celebrity nature. This documentary is worth seeing on the basis of the live performances alone and they are captured perfectly here. It’s also worth seeing to hear the many, many location-dependent accents Grace Jones possesses.
Ultimately, this documentary serves as another positive example of the cultural phenomenon that is Grace Jones.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is released 27th October 2017