Grace Jones is one of those icons who is more influential than beloved. Even after thirty years in the music business, she has a small cohort of adoring fans, generally playing to theaters and large clubs. Take a look at any performance and it is plain to see why she inspires such devotion: she is commanding performer, with a sultry voice and outlandish costumes. More importantly, her music finds a groove that few disco, R&B, or pop singers can quite match. Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is an insightful documentary, directed by Sophie Fiennes without the trappings of a typical biopics. It is frustrating at times, even meandering, yet it captures Jones’ appeal with terrific performances and shrewd editing.
There is some archival footage, but Fiennes (sister to Ralph and Joseph) mostly follows Jones on a tour supporting her album Hurricane. Her approach is cinema verite to the core: there is no voice over, no title cards, and no talking heads. Jones never addresses the camera, and instead we get candid influences into different parts of her life. What is striking is how Jones seems at ease in so many contexts: she returns to her family’s modest Jamaica home; a few minutes later we see her in her typical outfit of form-fitting clothing, extravagant hots, and stilettos. I doubt this material is in chronological order, yet these vignettes accumulate so that we have some idea of this artist, and what she is about.
Between all the slice of life scenes, Fiennes treats the audience to several Jones performances. Two of them are particularly satisfying, albeit for different reasons: we watch Jones write/record “This Is,” the opening track from her latest album, and then we watch her perform it. It is rare to follow the kernel of a musical idea from its infancy to an accomplished performance, and Fiennes’ shrewd direction gives a sense of how this process leads to deep reward. On the other hand, we watch her perform “Love Is a Drug,” a hit she had back in 1980. That performance is, frankly, eye-popping: Jones wears disco ball hat, with lasers projected on her head so she seems more like an alien than usual. These songs are performed in an intimate setting, with Jones so confident and vulnerable that she’s practically communing with her audience.
Most folks probably know Jones from her time as a “Bond girl” or her role in Conan the Destroyer. Bloodlight and Bami touches on that obliquely, with Jones aware of her how her appearance and physicality is unique. In the film’s most intimate moment, she admits to a friend that her mannerisms were adopted by her domineering father, and she was revered for them because she put them into a context that is about female empowerment. While candid about her personal history, she also carefully controls her image. There are many scenes where we hear one side of a phone conversation, with her screaming. Total control comes with a price: if something goes wrong, then the buck stops with her. You can see Jones’ influence in the likes of Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, and Sia, but one of the film’s grim ironies is how being first does not always mean you get the accolades for it.
Throughout Bloodlight and Bami, Jones is a compelling mix of contradictions. At times, she lashes out like a diva. Sometimes of her outbursts are reasonable, others are not. We also see Jones in more subdued, downright tender moments, giving the cumulative sense that part of the reason she’s made it so long is that she is highly adaptable. In proof of fact, Jones adapts her accent depending on her audience. She speaks French fluently. She speaks to her band in a posh English accent, and her family with a thick Jamaican accent. No matter the outfit, with it’s a simple wrap or an extravagant fascinator, there is always a sense of the woman underneath. Bloodlight and Bami is like Jones herself: unapologetic, and defiantly itself. There are rewards here, but you have to meet the film halfway first.