Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami: Honesty in the Spotlight, by Ian Brill
At the start of Sophie Fiennes’ documentary on Grace Jones, Ms. Jones is singing “Slave to the Rhythm,” one of her biggest hits, under a golden mask of skull. It may seem like a surreal choice, an example of the over-the-top style and fashion that has marked Jones’ 40+ year career. But when Fiennes’ vérité documentary ended, I thought back to that skull mask and realized it was the perfect avatar to introduce us to this film. This may have been a mask that glittered under the spotlight, but what is more human than the skull? After you shed the skin and all other layers, it’s all that’s left. Fiennes’ film is a nakedly intimate portrait of Jones (sometimes literally) that confirms that Jones’ style is not just mere artifice, but rather a manifestation of a fully realized human being.
Jones seems to lead many lives all at once, and Fiennes’ camera is a fly-on-the-wall for all of it. We see Jones travels to her native Jamaica to reunite with family, argue over business in recording studios and hotels, and go clubbing in New York. Concert footage weaves throughout. To explain why this film is such an electric portrait, let me first explain why Jones is so special.
Jones first gained notoriety in the disco mecca Studio 54 but was one of the few artists of the disco era to survive and thrive in the 80s. Working with French multimedia artist Jean-Paul Goude, she exuded an image all her own. With her hi-top fade she struck an unmistakable androgynous look. The photos on her albums, many by Goude, had lighting that embraced the darkness in her complexion, a repudiation of how the fashion world usually featured people of color. The care and creativity Jones put into her appearance raised the bar for how popstars could present themselves, and visionary artists like Lady Gaga and Janelle Monáe owe her a debt.
The film celebrates that artistic ambition, not just in Jones’ visuals but the music itself, with almost a third of the film being concert footage. Jones did not just break boundaries in gender, her music is a unique blend of disco, reggae, funk, and rock. Now in her 60s, her powerful voice has not lost an ounce of strength. While there are masks and costumes, for much of Jones’ performances she is only wearing heels and a bathing suit-like one-piece. After performing “The Williams Blood” (a song about how she is an avatar for the divisions in her family) she sings an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace,” and she has the whole crowd hypnotized. Later, she talks about how a performer must be ready to entertain at all times, even if the lights give out. She knows she must be able to hold an audience even without the “trimmings” as she puts it.
Fiennes’ gives us the jarring experience of seeing Jones rip up the stage in one moment and then immediately cut to achingly domestic scenes with Jones and her family in Jamaica. At first it can be hard to believe that such a powerhouse could come from this laidback and modest community. But as she and her siblings discuss their upbringing, Jones’ personal evolution becomes clear. Jones discusses how she and her four siblings stayed in Jamaica after her parents went to New York. The children were put in the care of their grandmother and her husband, a man named “Mas P” (“Mas” as in “master”). Mas P had an authoritarian rule over the children, disciplining by hitting them with his belt as they were forced to read the Bible. It’s easy to see that this oppression she lived under is the opposite number of her libertine stage act. But even more revealing is the insight that Jones gives us: that the masculine side of herself, the one that is central to her persona, is a channeling of Mas P. Her gender-bending isn’t some calculated move, but an appropriation of a hurtful part of her past, transformed into something she owns completely. That truth is at the core of Jones’ work. It’s why her work resonates while others’ may seem hollow.
Some may dismiss artists like Jones, so enamored with costumes and makeup, as “artificial.” But as Fiennes puts forth, Jones is a confidently realized human being. She wears masks, but she is comfortable in all guises, from dancing in clubs in a near-transparent top to holding her newborn grandchild in her hands. Through hardships, Jones draws on a fulfilled self to explore many different expressions and communicate an artistic voice that is all her own.