M usic documentaries seem to come in two varieties. One aims primarily at pleasing fans and advertising the subject; this type is generally features an inspirational life story and a carefully selected and edited collection of interviews and greatest hits performances. This type is analogous to the jukebox musical on Broadway and is generally popular with fans of the artist in question, but offers little to anyone else, because it’s pretty much the same no matter which artist is being featured. The other type aims to get behind the star’s carefully public image and offer the public something they don’t get from a performance—unscripted moments in which the star may or may not come off well. This type of documentary is less predictable, but potentially more interesting, because it doesn’t rely on a pre-existing formula.
Sophie Fiennes’ documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is of the second variety, and if you can tolerate its tendency to meander, it offers quite an interesting look at this unique artist. It’s more collage than biopic, and as such, well worth watching if you’re up for something different.
In case you somehow missed the phenomena that was and is Grace Jones, here’s a brief précis. She was born Grace Beverly Jones in Jamaica in 1948 and moved to upstate New York 13 years later. Jones began her career as a fashion model before branching out to music, wherehHer androgynous appearance and sense of style coupled with a powerful voice made her an international star. Jones became a cultural icon, and to my mind she has done at least as much as, say, Prince, to break down gender stereotypes (she became a gay icon despite being, so far as I know, straight). She also appeared in several films, mostly of the low-budget variety, and was nominated for several Saturn Awards (given to recognize performances in genre films). On top of her many specific accomplishments, she created an unique public persona—you only need say “Grace Jones” to anyone familiar with her work, and that communicates a whole host of talents and characteristics whose combination is found in one artist and no other.
Grace Jones does include some recent performance footage that demonstrates without question that at age 70 she still has it. The film spends much more time offstage, showing Jones visiting family in Jamaica, discussing a performance in Paris, and negotiating the details of a life in the music business. In the latter, she shows the kind of toughness and adherence to her vision that has earned her the title of “diva”, with both the good and bad connotations of that world, although I suspect if she were a white man rather than a black woman she’d probably carry the label “innovative artist” instead. At any rate, Grace Jones is always Grace Jones, and demonstrating that fact is perhaps the greatest achievement of this documentary.
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is distributed on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber. The only extras on the disc are two audio commentaries, one with Grace Jones, Sophie Fiennes, and Africana Studies professor Judith S. Casselberry, the other with Sophie Fiennes and criic Ian Haydn Smith. | Sarah Boslaugh