'Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami': Film Review | TIFF 2017

Appealing but unrevealing.

Documentary maker Sophie Fiennes follows veteran art-pop diva Grace Jones around the globe in this TIFF opening-night premiere.

Now that Prince and David Bowie have departed this mortal plane, is there anyone left who still embodies that electrifying notion of star as otherworldly androgynous superfreak? Perhaps only Grace Jones, art-rock glamazon supreme, has the requisite reserves of impenetrable mystique and old-school majesty. British director Sophie Fiennes certainly finds Jones a spellbinding subject in Bloodlight and Bami, securing intimate access to the veteran diva over several years without ever quite managing to spill her secrets.

Best known for her two collaborative documentaries with philosopher Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012), Fiennes takes a less discursive and more impressionistic approach in Bloodlight and Bami. Little is explained in the film, not even the title, which derives from Jamaican slang for the red light in recording studios and a local type of flatbread. Opting for a fly-on-the-wall travelogue approach punctuated by lavishly staged musical numbers, Fiennes rejects rock-doc conventions like talking heads, archive footage and linear narrative. Which is commendably bold on one level, but may leave some viewers scratching their heads and craving a little more context.

World premiered in Toronto today, with an Adelaide Film Festival slot next month, this Britain-Ireland co-production is set to open Oct. 27 in U.K. theaters. The combined pulling power of Jones and Fiennes should ensure a healthy festival run and brisk commercial interest, with art house buyers and small-screen platforms most likely to take a chance on what amounts to a fairly experimental portrait of a cult avant-pop legend.

The time frame of Bloodlight and Bami is purposely vague, but it appears to stretch back at least a decade, to when Jones was recording her 2008 album Hurricane. Fiennes gathered footage sporadically over five years, followed by almost as long in postproduction. This lack of urgency is puzzling, but not particularly problematic for the film since Jones has always inhabited her own personal timezone, a golden force-field of eternal Grace-ness untouched by petty human concerns like chronology. When this reviewer witnessed her in concert just six weeks ago, she appeared as eerily ageless and regally fabulous as she has done for the last three decades. Amazingly, she turns 70 next May — in Earth years, at least.

With Fiennes in tow, Jones gives great diva for the camera, preening around luxury hotel suites from Moscow to Tokyo to New York, feasting on champagne breakfasts and occasionally flashing her statuesque naked body. “I wish my pussy was this tight,” she giggles as she attacks a plate of too-fresh oysters.

Finding herself thronged by a tacky troupe of scantily dressed female dancers on a Parisian TV show, Jones explodes at the producer. “I look like the lesbian madam in a whorehouse!” she protests. “Are there any male dancers?” On another occasion, after a telephone meltdown over an unpaid hotel bill, she concludes with a slam-dunk line stolen from Dolores Claiborne: “Sometimes you have to be a high-flying bitch.”

So far, so predictably Grace. But oddly absent from this permanently self-aware performance is any sense of Jones today, the sixty-something grandmother lurking behind the dazzling facade of invincible pansexual warrior queen. Cameo appearances by her ex-partner and visual collaborator, the French graphic designer Jean-Paul Goude, and their grown-up son Paolo lend some sketchy hinterland to this story. Old friends, including Jamaican music legends Sly and Robbie, also appear fleetingly. But Fiennes offers few insights into the singer’s current relationship status, home life, private passions, political opinions, artistic interests, regrets, ambitions or future career plans. Jones struts and poses, flirts and fumes, showing everything but revealing nothing.

In fairness, there are illuminating moments during a family reunion trip that Jones undertakes to Jamaica, filmed in grainy home-movie style, which Fiennes returns to repeatedly. Switching fluidly into heavy patois, the singer reminisces at length with her siblings, cousins, old friends and neighbors. She also witnesses her mother Marjorie singing hymns in church, an association with a painful backstory. The ghost at the feast here is her grandmother's second husband Peart, nicknamed “Mas P,” a religiously strict disciplinarian who traumatized the pre-teen Jones with sadistic beatings until she turned 13, when she was reunited with her émigré parents in upstate New York. Fiennes keeps these horror stories casual and anecdotal, leaving viewers to guess about any lingering psychological scars.

A more dutiful, conventional documentary would have given us at least of glimpse of Jones in her imperial pomp during the 1970s and 1980s: trailblazing fashion model, Studio 54 party animal, New Wave disco diva and movie star. She roomed with Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange, hung out with Andy Warhol, turned down a role in Blade Runner and dated Dolph Lundgren, reportedly torching his trousers during one of their stormy bust-ups. Just a fraction of this rich biographical material might have given Bloodlight and Bami more narrative heft and cultural depth.

The closest the film gets to addressing this period is a rambling backstage conversation about an infamous 1981 incident in which Jones attacked BBC talk show host Russell Harty live on air, a tantrum that she partly blamed in her evasive 2015 memoirs on seeing Mas P’s malevolent spirit reflected in Harty’s face. Her explanation in this film is more prosaic and less fanciful. A clip of the original TV show would have been a logical inclusion here, especially as Bloodlight and Bami is partly funded with BBC money. But Fiennes sticks doggedly to her present-tense cine-verite aesthetic, for better or worse.

For casual fans, the film’s key selling point will be the live musical numbers, specially staged in a Dublin theater, which do a great service to future generations by immortalizing the matchless spectacle of a Grace Jones concert. Sporting a dazzling array of Philip Treacy hats and Jasper Conran corsets, Jones performs a selection of her best-known songs including "Slave to the Rhythm," "My Jamaican Guy," "La Vie en Rose," "Pull Up to the Bumper" and "Warm Leatherette." With staging conceived by the late Japanese Oscar nominee Eiko Ishioka, these clips offer an eye-popping blend of catwalk show, Dadaist cabaret and ravishing glam-rock extravaganza.

Fiennes shoots these musical vignettes in lush colors and luxuriant light, accentuating the high-resolution artifice that defines Jones the avant-pop icon in contrast to the lo-fi “realness” of her offstage self. But of course, both Graces are wearing different types of mask. And while Bloodlight and Bami is a sumptuous sensory treat, it never quite gets behind either.

Production companies: Sligoville, Amoeba Film, Blinder Films
Cast: Grace Jones, Ivor Guest, Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Jean-Paul Goude
Director-editor: Sophie Fiennes
Producers: Sophie Fiennes, Beverly Jones, Shani Hinton, Katie Holly
Executive producers: Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Lizzie Francke, Keith Potter, Francesca Von Habsburg, Danielle Ryan, Alan Maher, James Wilson, Emilie Blezat
Cinematographer: Remko Schnorr
Musical director: Ivor Guest
Hats: Philip Treacy

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Sales company: WestEnd Films
115 minutes