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    Remarkable Documentary About Grace Jones Dazzles

    By Gary M. Kramer

    How does anyone approach the inimitable, indomitable Grace Jones? The singer/actress/model turns 70 this year. She still has those impeccably sculpted legs and cheekbones, that distinctive, throaty voice, that androgynous appearance, and that outré sense of fashion. She is utterly unconventional and totally alluring. In the remarkable documentary, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and BAMI, opening April 27 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema, director and editor Sophie Fiennes reveals her subject’s essence in performances and personal moments. 

    The film opens with the singer performing her hit song “Slave to the Rhythm” on stage, dressed in a mask in one scene, and gyrating with a rainbow-colored hula-hoop in another. These performance scenes are a testament to her showmanship, and as adoring fans greet her outside the stage door, there is no doubt she deserves the worship.

    But Fiennes is not looking to discuss Jones’ art and craft, or personal story and struggles. Instead, the film whisks Jones back to her homeland, Jamaica, where she reconnects with her family. In a series of observational scenes, Jones talks with her mother and siblings about their collective history, drinks fresh coconut water, and shucks some tricky bivalve mollusks, candidly stating, that she wishes her privates were as tight as these mussels.

    As Grace Jones Bloodlight and BAMI shows, its subject does not mince words. She reacts badly to collaborators cancelling studio time that she paid for, and she pushes back regarding a performance where she claims she has been made to look like a “lesbian Madame in a whorehouse”—because her backup dancers are gyrating on a tacky set in negligée-like costumes.

    Jones later yells during a phone call about an unsigned contract and hotel room issues. Her anger is justified in each situation, and such scenes indicate how much harder the performer has to work to get what she deserves—especially since she is doing the work. Such moments of demanding behavior reveal more about Jones’ perfectionism than any interview might.

    Moreover, these episodes are reflected in Jones’ song lyrics. When she sings “This Is,” her refrain, “They tried to strip me of dignity/but I still have tenacity,” speaks volumes. Likewise, her song “Williams’ Blood” has more meaning after viewers meet Jones’ mother, Marjorie Jones (nee Williams) and gets snippets of her family history.

    Jones is absolutely hypnotic on stage. The dozen performance scenes are infectious, each one a riot of music, color and style. Her appearances are dazzling, from her makeup—she does her eyebrows in one scene, and “goes tribal,” painting her face in another—to her wearing a sparkly bowler hat and some fabulous headwear.

    Jones also comments on her androgyny in the film. Her remark about appearing masculine is to emphasize “dominant and scary” qualities, and it makes sense in light of what viewers learn about Jones’ strict father. The performer claims that she used acting to deal with some of the difficulties she had growing up with him.

    Such insights are interesting, but one senses from the documentary that Jones is very conscious of what she presents on screen—even when she is seen fully naked. What comes across most clearly is how carefully Jones constructs her image, on stage and off.

    As Jones insists in one conversation she has about a fight that broke out on live TV, she “doesn’t strike without a warning.” She also espouses philosophies, from “Sometimes you gotta be a high-flying b—-,” to one that exclaims, “Men should be penetrated at least once to know what it is like to receive.” Fans will no doubt appreciate Jones’ unfiltered remarks.

    Fiennes is adept at capturing moments both big—such as Grace accompanying her mother to church, where Marjorie sings for the congregation—and small, as when Grace reveals her skill at playing jacks. (Who knew?) And such is the magic of Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami.

    The opportunity to see Jones strut on stage to perform “Pull Up to the Bumper” as well as “Warm Leatherette,” “Love Is the Drug,” and “Nipple to the Bottle,” among other classics, is irresistible. Seeing her acknowledge that she is surprised her version of “La vie en rose” became a disco hit is gratifying. It is nice to see her appreciate an unexpected success.

    Such humility does come across throughout the film, and Jones is not always seen as fierce or being a diva. In fact, she achieves a measure of poignancy when she talks about her late father’s “death eyes.” It’s a touching moment in a portrait that never aims to demystify Jones, but rather, simply presents her as she is and shows Grace Jones just being Grace Jones.

    © 2018 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer