PRIVATE LIFE DRAMAS: BLOODLIGHT & BAMI REVIEW
Reviewed by PARIS POMPOR
Over ten years in the making, SOPHIE FIENNES delivers a vivid, bewitching and satisfying portrait of one of pop music’s most striking, flamboyant and enduring characters: Mx GRACE JONES.
Much of English director Sophie Fiennes’ ‘Bloodlight And Bami’ documentary (she is also credited as editor) centres around a family reunion in Jones’ birthplace, Jamaica where some of the recording for her self-financed 2008 album ‘Hurricane’ took place. We therefore get to hear Grace Jones unadorned in the studio and witness masterful rhythm duo Sly & Robbie in action (one half also getting a tongue lashing for wasting her time and money). Alongside are candid, intimate moments with Jones’ mother and other relatives as they visit sites from the singer’s early childhood. Inside homes and a minibus, family members are found enjoying each others’ company, whilst also picking over difficult memories of the absent, but always ominously hovering, father figure “Master P”. Now the familial tensions examined in the ‘Hurricane’ album’s centrepiece ‘William’s Blood’ are laid bare as stories of a cruel, whip-wielding man of the cloth are retold. Resilience is manifest in starkly different ways amongst kin, the singer herself admitting she sometimes experiences something of a metamorphosis on stage, channeling the patriarch’s rage into the towering, prowling, man-eating, androgynous performer we’ve grown to love.
Fiennes does a wonderful job capturing Jamaica so evocatively for the screen, its sticky, buzzing heat and knobbly roads are in stark contrast to the sleek, glossy interiors of other locations. In Europe we rejoin Jones inside a limousine leatherette gliding alongside the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, unimpressed that the all-night Paris of her heydays is now the playground of a new generation with far less stamina. Inside a dimly lit swanky hotel, Jones talks direct to camera or goes about dressing, applying make-up and pacing the plush pile following a phone call disputing performance fees. Dissecting all these scenes are the magical performances captured inside an ornate theatre in Ireland, where Jones is close-up and triumphant.
Evergreens like ‘Pull Up To The Bumper,’ ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ and ‘La Vie en Rose,’ – as well as songs from her most recent album – are superbly staged and vibrantly realised for the big screen. Closing number ‘Hurricane’ is indelible as Jones performs in profile with a billowing black storm cloud of fabric in her wake. In these theatre scenes, we see the original staging concepts by late Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka, while milliner Philip Treacy’s fantastical hats join a dazzling array of outfits and masks paraded throughout the film. Where on earth Ishioka, Treacy or even former partner and long-time collaborator Jean-Paul Goude (who cameos in a poignant conversational sequence) were all hiding when the Wall Of Sound label signed off on the cover artwork for 2008’s album is anyone’s guess, but it’s the one glaring miscalculation in Jones’ otherwise stunning visual history.
The staging is undoubtedly terrific, but it’s the simplicity of ideas that are so beautifully highlighted in the performance sequences filmed by Fiennes. Anyone who saw Grace Jones on the original Hurricane Tour, knows how incredibly effective one laser light and a bedazzled top hat can be, and today’s pop stars could learn a thing or two by watching her in action. The former (though arguably she still fits the title) super-model understands better than most, that less is more. With Jones, what you get is one well conceived concept per song, not the barrage of subterfuge we see in most pop videos. And while others have semi trailers full of coloured lights and mechanical stage props, Jones is infinitely more commanding straddling a simple set of stairs in little more than seven-inch heels and a corset. Madonna, Janet and others surround themselves with umpteen dancers in their concerts, while the utterly original Jones demands and holds our attention mostly on her own. In one scene filmed for a television show, the way she drapes herself atop a stool is like a spontaneous art installation all its own. That it’s followed by a meltdown at the TV producer’s ludicrous misjudgment in hiring synchronised fluffy-pink dancers for the number, is both amusing and revealing. “Don’t you have any male dancers?” the singer asks after rightly protesting that the concept makes her look like a lesbian brothel owner surrounded by sex workers. Funny? Yes. Jones sure has a way with words, effortlessly sliding between English, French and Jamaican patois to deliver some memorable lines. Most revealing in this scene however is what’s really worrying Jones: when the producer offers to axe the pink ladies of the night from the production, Jones is concerned her female co-performers will lose their roles (and maybe some pay) and hate her for being cut from the broadcast.
A few early reviews of ‘Bloodlight And Bami’ (which takes its name from the Jamaican terms for a studio’s red recording light and a type of bread) have argued there’s a lack of personal insights in the film. These reviews seem to have missed the subtleties, or perhaps the reviewers prefer documentaries where the audience is spoon fed like the enduring infant immortalised in Jones’ ‘Nipple To The Bottle’ (also featured in the film). Fiennes has rejected tired music-documentary techniques, instead rendering a sympathetically artistic portrait of a woman whose public life has been one carefully crafted artistic manoeuvre after another. Thankfully Fiennes’ film is devoid of talking heads telling tales or waxing lyrical about how inspirational or influential Jones has been. Fiennes’ documentary is largely observational. It’s a portrait: one artist’s abstract study of another. But really, how much more of herself can Jones give? Here she is by turns happy, furious, unmasked and brutally honest. What more could viewers want revealed, her current ‘Private Life Dramas?’ The woman is first and foremost an enduring musician and we get plenty of insights into her music and the creative process, plus a whole more into the bargain. Is it not enough that a woman whose highly sculpted image has been her bread and butter, lets most of that fall away for us, for however brief a time, taking us inside her studio, her family’s home and her dressing room? Jones even appears naked in some scenes and there aren’t many 69 year-olds who would be comfortable with that. Is it not enough that in little more than a sarong and with fingers greasy with fried food, we’re privy to meal conversations, not to mention siblings discussing the enduring effects of a violently abusive parental figure? I’d argue that it’s more than enough and that ‘Bloodlight And Bami’ is brave, revealing and compelling. That Jones emerges at the end heroic and maintaining her statuesque mythical aura, is a credit to both her and Fiennes.
GRACE JONES: BLOODLIGHT AND BAMI premiered in Sydney at the 2017 Antenna Documentary Film Festival. Update: Grace Jones returns to Australia to perform live in February 2018 when the film will get its cinema release. TWO Special Preview screenings happen in Sydney December 2nd for the Electronic Music Conference BUY TICKETS HERE