The butch-femme icon Grace Jones is many things, but boring isn’t one of them. So why does Sophie Fiennes’ observational Grace Jones documentary Bloodlight and Bami present Jones with such dull objectivity?
Fiennes followed Jones to Jamaica for a family visit in 2005 where the artist also worked on some tracks that ultimately became 2008’s Hurricane; she spends time with her on tour, preparing for a French television program, clubbing in New York, at home in Paris. She had as much access to Jones as anyone has had in the past. Still, no story evolves. We amass a fragmentary portrait of the artist approaching her golden years, though the entire project feels like a missed opportunity.
Yet is it? At the center is the artist herself — in bitch diva mode at a French taping of her disco hit “La Vie En Rose;” on stage performing a fierce version of her family-history track “Williams’ Blood” — but we are privy to more sides of her than her public persona has heretofore allowed.
“Normally I don’t like people to see that vulnerable side of me,” Jones has said. “It’s not a side that I normally would share with the world. But when I decided to do the film, I felt strong enough, actually, to show the vulnerable side.”
We see it with the neighbors in Jamaica who never treat Jones like a celebrity and share the dark family history that encompasses her grandmother’s child-abusing husband (not Grace’s blood grandfather). We feel it when she welcomes her grandchild into the world. And there’s a lovely, extended scene in New York when, post gig, Jones regales a crowd with stories of the city in the old days before heading out to party (on some substance or another) until the wee hours.
For those who aren’t aware of Grace Jones, the film isn’t going to impart much to them. Fiennes doesn’t waste time on locating us, geographically or historically, and it’s nearly impossible to understand why Jones was such a force in the New York modeling demimonde that launched her recording career.
Yet the live segments give the film audience a glimpse into Jones’ compelling stage presence (though it helps to have a passing knowledge of her work going in). And the lack of a narrative through-line, coupled with the cinema vérité approach to everything that occurs off-stage, must have appealed to the visual prankster in Jones. That a documentary about one of the most graphically inventive performers of the last 40 years is as muddy as dishwater must have tickled her contrarian’s heart.