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GRACE JONES: BLOODLIGHT & BAMI (2018) review

April 27, 2018

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produced by: Sophie Fiennes, Shani Hinton, Katy Holly & Beverly Jones, 
directed by: Sophie Fiennes
rated: not rated
runtime: 115 min.
U.S. release date: April 13, 2018 (limited) & April 27-May 3, 2018 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)

 

Don’t expect a career overview in “Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami” since this is a film that catches up with who the recognizable figure is currently and what she is doing with her life. Director Sophie Fiennes captures a rarely seen side of the recording artist, who has continuing to do whatever she has wanted to do for over four decades. While there are die-hard fans out there who’ve tracked her all along, this documentary is for those who assumed Jones, who is approaching 70 years of age (although you’d never know), faded away after her pop culture status reached its height in the 80s. It’s a film that refutes such an assumption, showing just how vibrant and dynamic Jones remains.

The film opens with Grace Jones singing her signature song, “Slave to the Rhythm” at a live concert, the camera transfixed on her confident and commanding presence.  From there, we travel with the artist to her homeland, as she visits her family and friends in Jamaica. Going back and forth, from her stylish stage persona to her relaxed and raw off-stage presence, is the approach Fiennes takes throughout the film and it’s a decision that benefits the overall experience while subverting viewer expectations.

 

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So, if you’re like me and you primarily knew Jones from her random movie roles in the 80s and 90s – and you really don’t know much about her beyond that – then you probably won’t necessary expect to find the glamorous and fashion-savvy icon in the lush jungles of Jamaica. That’s me. I didn’t know where she came from or much about her music career. I primarily knew Jones for her two outrageous characters, Zula in “Conan the Destroyer” (1984) and May Day in “A View to a Kill” (1985), back when I was in middle school.  She’d show up on talk shows and in commercials, and had a brief role in “Boomerang” (1991), but that’s what typically came to mind when I heard Grace Jones being referenced (which was kind of rare). Therefore, this film is essentially aimed at me, since it serves as a revelation of who she is both on and off stage.

What “Bloodlight and Bami” mainly shows is how Grace Jones can be an immovable force when it comes to her career decisions and a tender-hearted admirer when it comes to her family. In showing these two sides, Fiennes touches on intricacies in a naturalistic, unobtrusive manner – her hands off approach is the definition of observation. At no time does Jones or anyone else acknowledge that they are being filmed. That’s refreshing and a unique draw. There are no talking heads, no narration and no informative text that popping up on screen to provide us with any history or context. Fiennes simply trusts what she is capturing and who she is capturing it for.

It helps that Jones is completely on board here. She’s never been coy or known for her shyness, but she is unafraid to invite viewers into a side of her life rarely seen. A side many artists can relate to.  There’s the struggle with producing your own record and wrestling for your own artistic integrity, along with discussions about money, distribution and tours with her managers and band mates. I’m sure there’s a lot about Jones you can read in books, but this documentary sits us up close, allowing us with a backstage pass into her life.

 

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The most informative aspect of the film is the trip Jones makes to Jamaica. One gets the idea that whenever this recent trip was, it had been a while since she had returned home, or at the very least there was a palpable anticipation. Besides the fact that it’s cool to see Jones unglammed for the stage and looking near unrecognizable in civilian clothes, tagging along on this journey home introduces viewers to an environment of lush jungles and mountains that overlook villages below and the sea beyond. Fiennes’ camera follows an undeterred Jones as she can be seen downing fresh coconut milk, touring old homes and stepping in a local church to take in the atmosphere. Along the way, we’re privy to conversations between Jones and her family members, as she takes in old memories, especially a past where she was overseen by an abusive grandfather (known as “Mas P”) and the violence that has built scar tissue for her.

The visit to Jamaica takes up most of the film’s third act and the more time we spend with her there, the more the trip feels like catharsis. The visit appears to be a place and time to regroup for the bold artist during a time when she’s embarking on some uncertain territory in her career.  During this time, Jones is in the planning stages of  making of her first album without the support of a record company. We’re exposed to her infamous volatile outbursts, showing very little time for those who veer from her plans or attempt to make schedule changes. Jones also must contend with musicians who try to rearrange studio time and recording dates, as well as deal with a visit to a television variety show where she’s offended by performing around half-naked female dancers – part of her reaction is how the limelight is being taken from her, but she also vocalizes how she feels like a madam in a whorehouse. It may seem surprising that someone known for her outrageous behavior onstage and in public could be that concerned with what situations she’s put in or how she comes across, but ultimately what is shown is an empowering determination with a revealing vulnerability.

While it’s illuminating to witness her personal life, the highlights of the film are definitely the footage of Jones in concert. Besides the “Slave to the Rhythm” opener, we also see her perform “Warm Leatherette” and “Wicked”, in her unique costumes and creative stage designs and it’s these scenes that reiterate her impressive voice. Her unique cover of Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug”, the final song featured, feels like an aria, providing the film with its most touching live moments. These scenes stand apart from from the rest of the”Bloodlight and Bami”, offering a sharper cinematic look in order to fully communicate Jones as a performer.

 

As for the title, in Jamaican patois, ‘Bloodlight’ is the red light that illuminates when an artist is recording and ‘Bami’ means bread, the substance of daily life. The documentary is a fascinating combination of Grace Jones’ public and private like, both of which offer surprises and revelations of a life that is daring and alive whether or not the spotlight is on her.

RATING: ***

 

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