There’s a moment at the beginning of Sophie Fiennes’ documentary, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, where an adoring fan asks Jones if she’d ever do another movie. She smoothly answers, “My own.” It’s a loaded phrase because if Bloodlight and Bami is any indication, it might not be worth seeing. Or, if Jones were actually given the reigns, it could be fantastic. Fiennes’ documentary does produce glimpses of its enigmatic figure, but it’s hard not to wonder what a straight forward approach to the documentary would have yielded.
Bloodlight and Bami stands for the red light that artists use when recording (“bloodlight” is Jamaican patois) while “bami” means bread. These words are meant to represent the two halves that define Jones as a woman: the fierce, androgynous singing sensation, and the Jamaican-born girl who struggled to make it to New York to achieve her fame. Much of the screentime is given to watching Jones perform live, and if you don’t know anything about her it’s a treat to watch. At nearly 70 years old Grace Jones has never been more iconic and vibrant. Her stage shows are intimate affairs with high production values filled with lasers and smoke that never overshadow Jones herself. Performances of her greatest hits, including “Love is the Drug,” “Pull Up to the Bumper” and “Slave to the Rhythm” give audiences a compendium of songs to remind them of her legendary status, as well as remind you of how many performers owe their careers to her work.
It’s unclear how much time elapses from the film’s beginning or end. How long is the tour Grace is on? At what point does she take her Jamaican vacation to visit her family. Regardless, these moments give audiences a glimpse at Jones’ life. Her family recounts harsh days of growing up under the thumb of their step-grandfather Mas P, how siblings often took sides during arguments. At one point someone says Grace was always fighting, and that’s certainly true during the sections devoted to Jones’ tour. It is these scenes that are the most compelling because the audience doesn’t need context. She reveals she’s self-financing her latest album, yet is continuously running into difficulties getting performers. When she’s unhappy, she’s content to let people know, loudly.
For a woman with a career spanning decades, we also see snatches of how Jones is still treated as just another woman performer. Her performance in France sees her surrounded by scantily clad women leaving Jones to angrily ask the man why she looks like a “pimp.” Are there no male dancers, she asks? This, coupled with the struggles to stay in her hotel room and other problems recording the album, leave you with the idea that there’s far more boiling underneath the surface than we’re privy to. Jones is like an iceberg, hiding 90% of her and parceling out just enough to whet the audiences’ appetite.
Fiennes eschews talking heads, or really any overt commentary from any of her subjects. Yes, people will talk towards the camera, but Fiennes remains an unseen presence. It’s a method that has potential but demands helping the audience make connections between characters and events. When Jones visits Jamaica the audience knows they’re seeing her family, but who are they? Names are dropped quickly in conversation but never enough to be retained. It’s never stated who the people around her are or her relationship to them. There’s never even a pointless plug for the album Jones is working on!
Clocking at nearly two hours, Fiennes also seems unclear on when to move the camera. Jones will walk out of frame yet the camera will remain in the empty room, as if the cameraman has nodded off. Sometimes Jones is talking yet the lighting is nonexistent, leaving you to suss out who is even in the room. It’s unclear whether this is an artistic choice but the effect is one of poor planning.
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami has moments of genius. Jones talking about her childhood, bonding with her son and new grandchild, performing, are all fantastic. But it’s too spaced out in a movie that feels ridiculously boring. If you’re interested in learning about Grace Jones this is not for you. It’s an art project to play over Jones’ show.