If you have been reading my blog you know that THIS is the documentary that I had to see during #TIFF17 the Toronto International Film Festival. Grace Jones has been a Jamaican icon to me, dare I say second to Bob Marley. Somewhere someone just deleted my birthright as a Jamaican, but it’s the truth. As a young girl a poster with her bare back and shaved head looking over her shoulder as the only image on my wall. She was a fierce presence, defying all description while maintaining a visual presence that could not be duplicated.
Grace Jones, Bloodlight and Bami follows her for over 10 years. Film maker Sophie Fiennes is let into her dressing room, recording studio, home in Jamaica, hotel room in Paris, on the road between gigs, and on stage in Dublin. I was expecting maybe some conventional techniques, like interviews with her musical peers (are there any?). But this was more stream of consciousness, and revealed a vulnerable, passionate, relentless artist and business woman.
Grace is a child of abuse. She has converted the pain of physical beatings and strict demands of growing up in a religious household that rebuked short hems, makeup and outside influences like television. In one uncomfortable discussion, she visits her family and talks about the leather straps of different widths, with names. Names. Hanging on the wall on nails, as a constant reminder of the consequences of disobedience. She speaks of being in therapy on stage, imitating the gestures and hand motions of the man who was relentless in punishment.
There is not insight as to how she escaped the island, whether it was her modeling career or music that was the catapult. There is not early footage or performances or collages of her iconic photos over the years. As well, it does not feel as if this documentary took 10 years to make. Not just because her features are the same. The home in Jamaica, recording studious, stage in Dublin, hotels and dressing rooms, all blend and move through time as if one was in sequence over time and in the same day.
It is obvious that she is more comfortable in control on the road, than she is back in Jamaica. She has a deference, and obedience to her elders (expected demeanor in a Caribbean household, and I say this from experience). Not matter who she is, and how much fame she may have around the world, at home she is always the naughty daughter. With her collaborators, she is a shrewd businesswoman, self financing her work to have total creative control without limits. The artist imports hometown surroundings in her work, and there is a connection made with the rhythmic chirping of insects in the Jamaican countryside, used in the percussive background in one of her compositions.
Apparently, film maker Sophie Fiennes was at the mercy of Grace’s phone calls, that invited her along to continue making the documentary, at will. She had access to personal moments, but I still felt there was some distance. In one disturbing scene Grace is in a club, the music drubbing incomprehensibly, and Grace is filmed mugging for the camera, gyrating among other revelers, as if in an uncontrolled haze. She is surrounded, being grabbed, leaning in to the contact from others on the dance floor who seem to be strangers who want to connect with her writhing body but can’t due to her cat-like evasion. My thoughts during the screening were, is this showing her at her worst when she is out of control? Or does this mean she is totally free? She is together and alone, singular in a crowd, buffered by her cyclonic energy.
Her endurance is obvious during the segments on the only stage performance in Dublin featured in the documentary. In one segment, she is nude under a fur coat in a hotel room. Devouring breakfast and champagne, she states that she would not need lights, set design or any other aid via staging to perform. Only her voice.
Grace Jones represents performance art as a tool for confession, redemption, healing and liberation. Her lyrics speak of survival, hopes, fears, triumphs, and determination not to yield. After this, the word ‘androgyny’ is too easy to describe her, and no longer applies to Grace Jones, for me. She is a chameleon. Changing languages and accents from Paris to Jamaica. Morphing from cutting edge brand model to doting grandmother. Blazing with colour on stage, then retreating under a vague wide-brimmed low hat at church among evangelical revelers watching her Mother sing. As an influencer, her work has inspired many, both in and outside of the performing arts. She is a vulnerable warrior who pursued her own path, and no doubt there is more to come.
Bloodlight and Bami will be released soon. I recommend her book as well, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs.