The New Grace Jones Film Is a Beautiful Lesson in How to Document Our Icons
‘Bloodlight and Bami’ takes a step back, breathes and allows the artist to speak for herself.
Lead image courtesy of PR
In the mid-00s, Grace Jones decided to record a new album following a two-decade break. After releasing Bulletproof Heart in 1989, she had sworn she would never set foot in the recording studio again. But a lot of years had passed, and things would be different this time. She would piece it all together in Jamaica, among her friends and family, where she had grown up. She would also have full creative control, paying for it out of her own pocket and collaborating only with her favourite artists, such as composer Brian Eno and the prolific Kingston rhythm section duo Sly and Robbie. It would take as long as it needed to take. And in the tradition of reggae records, she would also release a dub version, with artwork shot by none other than her longtime visual collaborator and father of her only child, Jean Paul Goude.
The result was Hurricane, a nine-track album unlike anything she had made before. Gone was the rippling disco of the 70s, and gone were the new wave sweeps and squelchy funk of the 80s, replaced instead by a tightly wound mixture of electronica, reggae and gospel, with lyrics that were more direct and personal than what she'd written in the past. Opening with the words "this is my voice, my weapon of choice" in a deep, a cappella drawl, the first track then launches into an intensely fiery pattern of bass and percussion. Throughout the album, we learn that Grace has always felt more in tune with her mother's side of the family, the Williams. That she once had a lover who fell into a coma. That she has long been fascinated with dismantling corporate greed. To those wondering who Grace might be behind the mask of her many pop culture personas, Hurricane is an answer of sorts – or at least a closer peer into her interior world.
During the making of this album, filmmaker Sophie Fiennes followed Grace around for a documentary called Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, which will finally be released next month. But to say the film is an accompaniment to the album would be inaccurate. Hurricane is more like a bass line. Instead, we are given fly-on-the-wall access to Grace as she goes about her daily life, delivered through shaky footage that was shot over a handful of years and then slowly spliced together. One moment she is swimming in a glowing green lake in Jamaica surrounded only by the sound of lapping waves and chirruping birds and insects. The next she is hurtling through the light-studded streets of Paris at night in the back of cab, laughing down the phone to her son because he doesn't party as much her. And then she is on stage, naked and slathered in white paint, hula hooping her way through "Slave to the Rhythm" in a death-mask beneath a neon blue strobe.
Grace Jones' story is one that deserves to be told. Raised in a painfully oppressive Christian household under the abusive dominance of her grandmother's husband, she then escaped to New York as a teenager before travelling around Europe, immersing herself in the radical art scenes of the era, and pushing the limits of her creative and personal freedom via any and every means possible. In many ways, though, that story has already been told by Grace herself, in detail, for her 2015 autobiography I'll Never Write My Memoirs. As such, the purpose of this film isn't to rehash the past in visual form, or go over what we already know. There are no talking heads speaking earnestly about how she rewrote the rules of pop. There are no nostalgic clips of her slapping talk show hosts in the 80s, or close-ups of her adorning the covers of Vogue and Elle. We don't hear second-hand anecdotes about the time she did this or that at Studio 54 while off her face on quaaludes.
Instead, the film is brilliantly and beautifully engaged in the present. You watch as Grace devours plates and plates of oysters backstage, tears apart fried chicken's feet at her family dinner table and swills permanently topped up glasses of red wine. You hear her accent fly between a deep Jamaican patois, a rolling French drawl and a cockney-meets-American twang, depending on where she is in the world. You see her crouched on the wooden floor of her mother's bedroom, laughing from her belly as they play a game of Jacks. You watch her unable to choose which floral skirt to wear to church where her brother is preaching. As a filmmaker, Fiennes remains at a distance throughout, merely showing us the collection of raw footage that she has compiled. Through this, we get a simple and honest portrait of Grace as a person with a ferocious appetite in all aspects of her life, as someone who fiercely holds onto her family ties and who remains as weird and wild on stage as she always has been, even as she approaches 70.
These past few years have seen a huge surge in documentaries about our musical icons, probably because they all seem to be leaving us. These films have ranged in style, from Asif Kapadia's 2015 biopic about Amy Winehouse, in which he brutally unpacks every aspect of the singer's life in unflinching detail, to something like Nick Broomfield's more recent Whitney: Can I Be Me, which offers a look back at Whitney Houston's rise and fall told through old footage and voices of those that knew her. But in both of those examples and more, the "icon" is positioned as the protagonist of a story that has been woven around them. We are given the musician, and then we are given their history painted with the opinions of other people, until what we are left with is a tight prism in which to view them through. But Bloodlight and Bami dismantles that way of doing things. It is a film that strips away the plot rather than thickens it.
I would imagine this is partly because Grace wanted to be involved in her own biopic, rather than having some filmmaker swoop in on it in years to come, after she's gone. But I also think there's something more overarching at play here. When we are documenting a musical or artistic visionary like Grace Jones, the real story – the one that exists beyond the headlines and scandals – has already been told because they've already made the art. You don't necessarily need to be spoon fed Prince's genius, for instance, because you have the whole of Purple Rain at your disposal. You don't need to sensationalise something that is already sensational. In this way, Bloodlight and Bami is a sparkling example of how to document our icons. It shines a light on something new. It takes a step back, breathes, and allows us to appreciate the reality of the artist in her most candid moments, in her own words, which is way more interesting than what we'd find in yet another standard biopic anyway.
You can follow Daisy on Twitter.
Bloodlight and Bami is out in UK cinemas on Friday 27 October, with a one-night event featuring Jones and friends being streamed live to select cinemas around the country on Wednesday 25 October. Find out more about that here.