For many of us Grace Jones is a well-known mystery. Though she’s a respected singer and performer, we don’t really know much about her, or where her art comes from. But, “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami’, a new documentary from director Sophie Fiennes’ (the Pervert’s Guide to Cinema) is intent on changing that.
Equal parts concert footage, biography, and fly-on-the-wall, Bloodlight and Bami takes viewers from Jones’ family home in Jamaica to Dublin, Paris, and Tokyo, in a somewhat fractured account that is ultimately more than a bit like Jones’ own life and work.
Fair or not, Grace Jones is known as much for her somewhat severe and often shocking appearance (costumes, makeup and hats, etc.) as for her on-stage performances. Fiennes film lets us see where much of that may have come from. Opening with a trip to Jamaica, where Jones grew up, and her family still lives, we’re treated to the sight of Jones walking through an airport with multiple hatboxes.
Upon landing on the island and greeting family, we learn that at least one of the lavish crowns is a gift for her mother, who clearly loves dressing for the Sunday congregation at the revival tent church where she regularly performs/worships.
It’s in that same rapid fire expositional fashion that the film’s characters and story are revealed. Not one to hit us over the head with heavy-handed “Jones had a hard life growing up with a domineering father figure” revelations, Fiennes allows her audience to weave tidbits of Grace’s origin story into a coherent narrative, and an explanation of how Jones became the lyrical, singular creative force she is today.
Jumping from a casually eaten fish dinner around the family table to a barbed in-studio phone call to a missing bassist, ‘Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami’ often leaves viewers longing for more. As much as I enjoyed the variety of locations and the various facets of Jones’ life, I found myself longing for some kind of thoughline.
The film isn’t the story of her return to her family home, or a behind the scenes look at one tour, or the recording of an album. It’s more than that. But at times that can be hard to hold in your hand. It’s certainly difficult to cleanly categorize. But that’s also been the knock on Jones’ work for most of her career.
As a tall, confident black woman who made her own way in the entertainment industry in the 1970s and 80s, without doing pop songs, and before rap and hip-hop really took off, she’s always been an enigma. That said, the film’s concert footage (largely shot in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre), shows Grace’s work to be a carefully choreographed soulful mélange of ballads and spoken word.
At times echoing the brittle spurned lover in songs that sound very much like Nina Simone, and at other times sounding downright operatic, Grace Jones’ performances, with their majestic headgear, fanciful lighting, and precision stage work are the mature assured output of a performer who has risen over decades, and come from humble, troubled roots. And Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami’, while a bit long, and at times hard to follow, is a faithful and captivating reflection of that artist’s ascendance.
‘Grace Jones Bloodlight and Bami’ opens at the IFI (Irish Film Institute) on October 27,2017.
Review by Glenn Kaufmann, a Dublin-based freelance writer, and one of the founders of No-Budget, a show for independent filmmakers. Click on the link to discover more: