December: Grace Jones

“We Are Visual Artists”

Juan Carlos Kase (University of North Carolina, Wilmington)

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is a work of relatively conventional documentary portraiture about a person who has rallied against convention throughout her entire life. Over a number of years, director Sophie Fiennes follows Jones to concerts and public events in the United States and Europe, and to the singer’s native Jamaica where she works in the studio and visits with family and old friends. Throughout her travels, Jones switches fluidly from her uniquely accented English into vibrant Jamaican patois and fluent French. Jones’s art, like her speech, is profoundly hybrid, and exhibits an incredible command of song, dance, performance art, fashion, visual art, and theater. In the world of pop music, Jones has always been an exception, an intermedial artist and enthusiastic polymath in a sea of pseudo-differentiated automatons.

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More than anything, Fiennes’s film depends on the established shorthand conventions of well-known backstage musical portraits, such as Don’t Look Back (1967) and Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991). These films all employ a formulaic narrative parallelism in which the director constructs two different versions of his or her subject, one of which is the public performer and the other the private person. The documentary filmmaker-observer captures backstage tiffs and relaxed moments of reminiscence with friends and lovers in order to suggest that we viewers are gaining special, intimate access to the “real” person behind the star. To support this method, Fiennes juxtaposes the film’s live performances of embodied spectacle against its dingier layers of low-fi observational videography.

Fiennes makes some effort to efface the conventions of industrial documentary by embracing a purely observational approach, avoiding talking heads and expert interviews, and eschewing archival footage. Nevertheless, the form and style of the film are familiar derivatives of the formula established by Direct Cinema roughly sixty years ago. In this regard, Fiennes’s work functions as a documentary variant of Noël Burch’s Institutional Mode of Representation (IMR). For an artist so committed to plasticity – in gender construction, in musical genres, in the visual spectacle of her performances – Jones deserves a more fully realized visual artist as her collaborator. It is a tragedy, albeit an aesthetic one, but a tragedy nonetheless, that virtually every filmmaker who has made a documentary about an artist has lacked the creative awareness and ambition of his or her subject (Emile de Antonio and a handful of others not withstanding).

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Throughout the film we see Jones in control of her own representation, doing her own makeup, directing her own mise-en-scene, and continually demonstrating both the intense pliability of her art and her control over its variations. Opposed to “tackiness” but enamored with excess, she is invested in playing against the grain of dominant taste cultures. Not only is there a rigor to how she constructs her art, but as she suggests in her nostalgic recollections of many late nights at Studio 54 and elsewhere, there is also a rigor to how she parties. When she says, “Serious disco was like going to church,” we know what she means. Her commitment to decadence can be downright religious; she is continually celebrating herself, her freedom, her world. Her music, her performances, and her visual art are demonstrations that, as she announces at one concert, “This is a party!” So too with life.

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Two scenes, when considered together, convey Jones’s commitment to a life script that is exclusively her own. In one vignette, Jones reluctantly sings “La Vie en Rose” for French television while sitting on a rotating stage, surrounded by almost lifeless lingerie-clad dancers (who appear to have been airlifted directly from the Victoria’s Secret angel ad campaign). Repeatedly Jones announces her frustration with the “tackiness” of the whole affair: “I’m like a madam in a whorehouse!” The unfortunate TV appearance triggers one of Jones’s most potent, most telling retorts in Bloodlight: “We are visual artists! We know what things look like!” In a quieter moment of repose, near the end of the film, we join Jones as she relishes an early morning champagne breakfast while the sun rises outside of her luxurious hotel suite overlooking the Louvre. Nude under her fur coat, Jones, now 60-something-years-old, proudly leans back and announces, “The performer out there takes the risks.” Here, in this vignette of poignant reverie Jones shows us how to be an artist amongst the whores, and in so doing, demonstrates how to be a creature of taste in the age of mass culture (to paraphrase and amend Susan Sontag). If only every popular singer, performer, and filmmaker took his or her aesthetic responsibility as seriously as Jones, and reveled in its associated pleasures with equal passion, we would have a markedly different landscape of both pop culture and documentary cinema.

“Aging with Grace”

Laurel Westrup (University of California, Los Angeles)

Grace Jones is a force of nature. At the end of Sophie Fiennes’s Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, Jones performs the eponymous track from her 2008 comeback album Hurricane with the regal bearing of a pop queen. “I’ll be a hurricane,” she sings, leaning into the gust of wind that billows her costume behind her, “ripping up/lifting up/tearing down trees.” The performance is powerful, even menacing, but Jones reassures us in another lyric that she can also be “cool/soft as a breeze.” The song, like Fiennes’s film, reveals Jones’s complexity as a performer and a person. But despite the many facets of Jones’s life that the film shows us—her relationship with her family, her business acumen, her charismatic stage presence—there is no denying that it is also a film about aging. Jones was nearing 60 when she reached out to Fiennes to suggest collaborating on the project that would become Bloodlight and Bami, and the singer/model/actress was almost 70 when the film came out last year. Yet Jones defies the stereotypes of the aging female star. Her skimpy costumes put her body on display, and her play with racial stereotypes, sex, and religion is as boundary-pushing as when she first hit the disco scene in the late-1970s. Indeed, as Nathalie Weidhase argues in a recent essay on Jones’s post-Hurricane career, “Jones performs both ageing and agelessness.”

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I understand the temptation to describe Jones as ageless. When I saw her perform at the Hollywood Bowl in 2015 at the age of 67, I was astonished not only by her lithe body and the physicality of her performance, but also by her fearlessness: Jones went topless for her rendition of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing,” and that was only the opening number. The performances in Bloodlight and Bami are similarly physical and fearless. But commentators’ obsession with Jones’s agelessness is also problematic. In her study of the press coverage around Jones’s comeback, Abigail Gardner found that critics’ attributions of agelessness to Jones were often connected to ideas about her as “scary” and “other.” Perhaps Weidhase gives us a more productive framework for viewing Fiennes’s film when she suggests that Jones “queers” the narrative of the aging diva.

Given Jones’s comeback in her 60s, it is also tempting to describe the phase of her career depicted in the film as a sort of “late style.” This term has traditionally been applied to geniuses (almost universally white and male) in the Western canons of literature, music, and the arts who have brilliantly synthesized the strands of their creative production late in life or have embarked on new and daring projects that run counter to earlier works. I want to call Jones’s recent work “late style” because I want it to matter. But while there is something cathartic—and, I dare say, virtuosic—in watching Jones twirl a hoola hoop while wearing a cat mask and singing “Slave to the Rhythm,” I’m not sure it’s truly late style. If late style is about the artist settling his (or occasionally her) accounts as death looms, the performances captured in Bloodlight and Bami eschew any indication that this is Jones’s farewell tour. To be sure, her work on and since Hurricane demonstrates reflection on her life and career: her performance of “Williams Blood” in the film is situated as a rumination on her upbringing in Jamaica, and the film also portrays her somewhat shaky reunion with key collaborators from earlier in her career, such as Sly and Robbie. But is this late style, or is it more properly old-age style? In their recent reevaluation of late style Gordon McMullan and Sam Smiles distinguish between “late style,” which comes at the end of life (no matter how short that life is), and “old-age style,” which is correlated with biological aging. Both terms suggest something of value in the work of artists who are supposedly past their prime, but “old-age style” feels less grandiose, more au currant.

While Fiennes does not shy away from Jones’s old-age style, I sometimes wish she gave us more insight into it, especially since the film’s eschewal of archival and interview footage gives her the opportunity to delve deeper into Jones’s present. As critics have pointed out, the poor quality of the film’s non-performance footage, and its shapelessness, can be trying. I appreciate that Bloodlight and Bami neither glamorizes nor mythologizes its subject, but as the film weaves together scenes shot all over the world over the course of many years, we lose rather than gain insight into Jones’s creative process, particularly as it relates to aging. Jones’s wry attitude toward aging is perhaps best captured in a scene where she’s shucking oysters, one of her favorite treats. We hear her mutter, almost under her breath, “They’ve got some tight muscles—I wish my pussy was this tight.” We also glean some insight into Jones’s thinking about aging via her conversation with former collaborator (and father of her son), artist Jean-Paul Goude. The old friends talk about love, loneliness, and the death of Jones’s father, which she says inspired her to write a song called “You Died a Beautiful Death, Dad.” But lest we fixate on Jones’s own mortality, Fiennes follows this scene quickly with a shot of Jones’s newborn grandchild: a rather ham-fisted suggestion that life goes on.

The performances captured in Bloodlight and Bami give us a rare glimpse of a figure who is both aging and in her prime, and in this regard, the film challenges the status quo of the average rock doc. Rather than mythologizing Jones through the retrospective lens of a look back, Fiennes’s film unapologetically captures an aging Grace Jones in the present tense. While the film’s technical failures obscure the profundity of that present, Bloodlight and Bami nevertheless suggests the possibilities of examining the aging artist at work.

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