Film Review: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

Grace Jones, that imperishable, influential and agelessly sexy icon of musical icons, is fittingly ensconced in a doc as fascinating, unpredictable and glamorously funky as her own persona.
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With her alpine cheekbones, smoulderingly slanted eyes to make Melania Trump’s look positively wholesome by contrast, splendidly athletic, ebony torso and, most of all, ripe mouth—succulently pouting or snarling like a tigress, and likened to the most forbidden fruit—Grace Jones has always been a visually arresting, divinely androgynous presence, taking exoticism further than just about anyone. Then there’s her commanding, stentorian voice and imposing,haute designer-draped and chapeaued stage presence, not to mention the singular strength that has enabled her, a lone black woman in a largely white man’s world, to not only survive but thrive since the 1970s in the crazy, impossible music business, long after others have stumbled and fallen.

All of these attributes are present and fully accounted for in Sophie Fiennes’ mesmerizing, loosey-goosey but comprehensive documentary portrait Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami. The first word in the title refers to the red light in the studio warning people to stay out because recording is going on, and the second is the name of a soul-satisfying Jamaican dish, made from the cassava plant. In other words, it’s her life in a nutshell: her four-decade recording career and her beloved birthplace to which she repairs often, having been transplanted from there to Syracuse, New York at age 12. 

Far from being a chronological survey of the life of a naturally rebellious girl, raised by a strict disciplinarian of a step-grandfather who beat her for the slightest infraction, the film weaves hypnotically in and out of her present-day life, filmed over a period of 12 years. Jones’ looks brought her fame as a model, but mostly in Europe where, like her predecessor Josephine Baker, the exotic was appreciated, not shunned. She parlayed her exposure and connections into a music career and, beginning with her album Portfolio, pumped out a sensational string of irresistibly danceable hits that coincided with the beginning of disco and indeed marked its very apex: “That’s the Trouble,” “Sorry, I Need a Man,” “Pull Up to the Bumper,” “My Jamaican Guy” and her masterpiece, the sparkling, reggae-accented “La vie en rose.”

That final song is featured here in a telling episode in which she performs for a French video team, surrounded by a squad of scantily dressed, sexy but decidedly cheesy chorines. An outraged Jones isn’t having it and cries that this tacky number makes her look like a lesbian madam with her whores. She’s ready to have the dancers fired but then realizes they’d be out of a job and relents, showing the big heart that still exists despite all manner of indignities and outrages she’s been put through, star status be damned. While she rages about a fishy contract in a suspiciously unpaid-for luxury hotel, she runs over the lyrics of a song she hasn’t sung in ages, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more illuminating example of how an artist uses her own work as therapy to get through life’s vicissitudes.

Fiennes’ camera deftly captures rivetingly fraught moments like this, as well as happier ones, most of which take place in Jamaica, where, apart from all the glitz and glam, Jones relaxes into her most authentic self, alive to the natural beauty and flavor of her birthplace. Her late mother appears here as well as other affectionate family members, including her adorable newborn grandchild and the child’s grandfather, genius artist Jean Paul Goude, the man most responsible for guiding her audaciously groundbreaking look (with lots of justifiable nudity) through the years.

Jones was muse—and, as she says, vice-versa—for many of the top artists of her day: Goude, Issey Miyake, Keith Haring, Azzedine Alaia, Eiko Ishioka, Jamaican music greats Sly & Robbie. Their collaborations with her are recalled in copious, deliciously full-length performance footage, superbly lit with the star solo, front and center, devoid of elaborate sets or backup dancers. A highlight is Jones, who savvily reinvented herself from disco to New Wave/punk and reggae in a way no one ever had before, performing “Slave to the Rhythm” in its entirety with a hula hoop, and when she does the wonderfully bawdy “Pull Up to the Bumper,” all she needs is her own ineffably elegant/funky rhythm while staggering about the stage in her trademark stiletto heels. At one point she declares that even if everything went wrong—no lights or sound—she could still perform for her avid fans, love every minute of it, and make them love it too. Damned if you don’t believe her, and become convinced that all the Madonnas, Gagas, Beyonces and Mileys (all of whom she disdains as pale imitators) couldn’t begin to compete with this indestructible, magnificent force of nature.

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