Although it boasts a uniquely atypical structure for a biographical documentary, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, Sophie Fiennes look at one of pop culture’s most enduring and trailblazing icons, will likely come off as being too impenetrable for casual fans or the unfamiliar. Choosing to remain with the still heavily active performer in the here and now instead of opting for a “greatest hits” approach certainly has its artistic advantages, but anyone looking for some much needed context would be advised to look elsewhere first before diving in head first here.
Fiennes, shooting largely in 35mm, followed Jones along as the androgynous disco and dance hall queen for a lengthy period of time starting in 2008, documenting her travels, recording sessions, and concert appearances. There aren’t any sit down interviews with Jones, her family, or any contemporaries, just pure, unfiltered fabulousness and truth bombs delivered from the singer while she’s in her natural element. Fiennes gets unprecedented access to Jones’ inner circle, spending time with her behind the scenes, during her leisure time, and in the recording booth as she frets over the challenges of crafting her first independently produced album, catching the perpetually well dressed and made-up performer out of costume and at her most vulnerable.
There’s a lot to be learned in Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami about the singer’s temperament and professional drive. With Jones approaching her late 60s at the time of Fiennes shooting, it’s inspiring to behold the film’s dazzling sweat and sex drenched concert sequences. Even in her senior citizen years, Jones can still throw down on stage and turn a party up to ten like few others can. As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that Jones demands that those around her work as hard as she does, with some of the film’s best and most intimate moments coming when she’s chewing people out for making her job harder, most notably early on when she calls up the Jamaican producing super-duo Sly and Robbie to lambaste them for delaying her process and giving her the run around. In other biographical documentaries such sequences might cast a film’s subject as unnecessarily demanding or harsh, but Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami balances these fiery moments with some softer moments of personal joy and triumph. In her song, “Nipple to the Bottle,” Jones proudly states “I won’t give in. I won’t feel guilty,” and Fiennes nicely uses her footage to showcase why this side of her subject’s iconic personality is most important.
One of the first times Jones’ is seen on camera, a fan asks her if she’d even consider being in another film, and her response – without hesitation – is “my own.” There’s an amount of artistic trust between subject and filmmaker that’s obvious in every frame of Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, which is probably why Fiennes favoured an undiluted, vérité approach. While moments spent with Jones in Jamaica, France, and New York are showcased in a manner similar to documentary master Frederick Wiseman, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami isn’t without a noticeable structure. Each seemingly meandering and laid back sequence will feature a nugget of truth about Jones’ life that will dovetail perfectly into concert footage of a similarly themed song from Jones’ catalogue. It’s a clever way of showing the viewer the deeply personal nature of Jones’ art, but much of that personality and richer meaning is still curiously missing.
Unless Jones is talking about something through one of her songs, Fiennes almost never prods her subject to discuss anything else, save for one notably innocuous moment in a dressing room where the director asks the diva to describe the excesses of the disco era in her own words. While super-fans will likely salivate at the chance to follow Jones around backstage as the singer goes about her day-to-day routine, there’s precious little historical, cultural, and even biographical bedrock to give the uninitiated a base of understanding. Without a moderate to high level of knowledge about Jones career, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami will border on inscrutable. Fiennes shows why Jones remains such an enduring presence and influence, but there’s no interest in how she got there or what it meant to the world while she was ascending to superstardom.
Granted, this approach makes Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami a documentary work that’s free of nostalgia. It’s all about being in the present and looking towards the future instead of dwelling on past successes, which is also unquestionably a key component to Jones’ longevity as a queer woman of colour in a notoriously fickle and callous industry. But without a dive into the details, Fiennes film remains underdeveloped. Even for something with a “take it or leave it” approach, Fiennes film has hugely distancing gaps, and although it all builds to a poignant point where the currently seventy year old Jones has a serious discussion about how much longer she can keep performing at a high level, it ends with a sense that this was all the filmmaker had to offer about her subject in the first place. And at just a shade under two hours with no discernible pacing, such biographical noodling is always in danger of boring and grating.
Jones has spent decades cultivating a mystique around her on-stage persona, and Fiennes chooses to revere her subject and take everything at face value. Sometimes this approach works wonderfully, and other times it frustrates. For a film about someone known for pushing back against societal boundaries, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is curiously inert outside of the stunning and memorable concert sequences. Here’s a performer who, in the middle of one of her best known songs, can switch things up and take the crowd to church with a show-stopping rendition of “Amazing Grace.” That’s a moment of performance worth preserving for the ages, but it’s hard not to wish that Fiennes tried a little harder to preserve and enhance Jones’ indelible legacy on the whole. As it stands, Fiennes’ work is a decent and artful bit of fan service that would make for worthy supplemental material as part of a more scholarly or insightful look at Jones’ life. It’s certainly not bad, but it feels half finished.
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, June 1, 2018. Following a screening of the film on Tuesday, June 5 at 7:00 pm, a panel of artists will consider Jones’ influence on music, performance, and popular culture by exploring the ways in which she subverts preconceived notions about race, gender, and celebrity. Panelists are scheduled to include Toronto based singer, songwriter and producer Alanna Stuart, multimedia artist Kim Ninkuru, female impersonator, DJ, film & television actress Jade Elektra and artist and host/producer of Canadaland’s arts and culture podcast Aliya Pabani.
Check out the trailer for Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami:
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