Toronto International Film Festival
With footage spanning a decade, Sophie Fiennes unleashes a “thrill-ride of verité cinema.”
When Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami was introduced at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, we were reminded that Sophie Fiennes is anything but a conventional filmmaker. Anyone who’s witnessed The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema or its equally bonkers follow-up, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, can attest to this. When you hear “a documentary about Grace Jones,” the traditional music biography song and dance of acquaintance interviews, archival footage, and greatest hits might flash before your eyes. A prolific chronology of Studio 54, Warhol, New Wave disco, and Dolph Lundgren. But, as TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers assured us, “this is a film that is as unconventional as its subject.”
Fiennes amassed a mountain of intimate footage of Jones — glamazon, super freak, and one of Earth’s last remaining purveyors of old-school allure — by trailing her over the course of a decade. “This film began in a collaborative creative spirit,” Fiennes told The Independent. “Grace had fiercely controlled her public image, but made the bold decision to un-mask…I didn’t second-guess the narrative of the film as I was shooting. I just gathered evidence.”
This is not a film role-calling Jones’s boundary-pushing and endlessly fascinating exploits. Rather it is, as Fiennes explains, “a deliberately present-tense experience”; we follow Jones as she returns to Jamaica, as she works on her 10th studio album Hurricane, and as she performs as recently as last year. “For me,” says Fiennes, “this is the thrill-ride of verité cinema.”
Jones has made a career out of performing versions of herself, and Fiennes’s film offers us three aspects of Jones’s personae, onstage and off. There’s the domestic Grace, who picks at fishbones at the family dinner table and cross-references stories with her siblings about their physically abusive step-grandfather; and who sings softly in the kitchen while shucking oysters (“wish my pussy was this tight!”). Then there’s the professional Grace, committed to the integrity of her art, barking orders and negotiations into her Nokia brick phone. And finally, there’s performer Grace, hula-hooping in platforms while singing live at the age of 69. These interludes were shot at a concert in Dublin that was staged specifically for the film. These musical numbers, radiating the lush, stark spectacle of a glam cabaret, will be a highlight for the casual viewer.
This notion of dual presence, of the private and professional, is explicit in the film’s subtitle. “Bloodlight” is slang referring to the red studio light indicating recording is in session, and “bami” is a kind of Jamaican flatbread. Together they announce the film’s tone and structure: the distinction and overlap between art and life. And that’s just what Fiennes presents us with: a vision of the art and life of Grace Jones.
Bloodlight and Bami’s impressionistic context-eschewing approach might make some folks bristle. But this is Grace Jones’s life and we’re all just along for the ride, stepping to her time, flowing effortlessly from Patrois to English to French. We meet key players like Jean-Paul Goude, Robbie Shakespeare, and Sly Dunbar; watch Jones apply a full face of makeup in the backseat of a cab, and revel in her relatable musings on post-booze-for-breakfast naps. But overall, Jones plays her cards pretty close to her chest, preserving, as ever, that distinguishing and enigmatic air of mystique that makes her feel so enduringly otherworldly. Fiennes never tries to contort Jones into a narrative box just so that we can get a warped sense of “the real her.” Instead, Bloodlight and Bami offers a hazy and yet utterly striking impression of a resilient Icon; a brush with something vibrant, raw, and eternal.
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is slated for a U.K. release on October 27th.