Slave to the rhythm of Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

Irish-UK co-production, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami has been one of the best-received documentaries of the year. 

The director Sophie Fiennes — another member of the talented film family — was unconventional in her approach, following the iconic Jamaican singer around with her camera over many years and putting the film together in the editing room.

“I had my bags packed at all times,” Fiennes recalls. “Grace would say, ‘You want to come to
Moscow in three days’ time?’ Or ‘We’re going to be in the studio tonight, can you get there at seven?’ Or ‘Are you going to come to Jamaica for the Jones family reunion?’ She was the one calling me and I just jumped.”

Jones, 69, sitting beside Fiennes, holds her hands over her mouth and cackles at her director’s tales.

“Things happened very spontaneously,” Jones explains.

“You have to seize the moment. I told Sophie not to worry, that she could stay with my family as there’s plenty of room. Her family’s big like mine; we have same amount of brothers and sisters. It all goes back to wiggling your way in whenever you can.

“When I was young and I was eating with my brothers and sisters they were all stealing my food from my plate. They’d go, ‘Look over there, it’s a moth!’ They knew I was afraid of moths and I’d look back and my food would be gone.”

The pair met through Jones’ younger brother Noel, a Pentecostal bishop who was the subject of Fiennes’ 2002 documentary Hoover Street Revival: Life, Death and God in South Central LA.

“Sophie invited me to see the film and when we met we connected immediately,” Jones recalls. “My brother spoke a lot about her.”

She says Noel is a very different kind of bishop to their very strict father. “He is a very interesting person much like Sophie. He has an analytical mind and we always have a lot of deep discussions even if we are opposites in so many ways.”

That is the understatement. After dropping out of college Grace had enjoyed the wild life, living on a hippy commune, taking LSD with Hells Angels bikers, frequenting the legendary Studio 54 and hanging with her friend Andy Warhol.

Her life certainly makes for fascinating viewing. Also a consummate businesswoman keen to preserve her brand, she has largely lived her personal life under the radar even if she has featured in various music projects (not to mention her feature films including Conan the Destroyer and A View to a Kill where she played a villainous Bond girl called May Day).

“Nothing stands next to this movie, because it’s so completely different,” Jones says, “though I still made sure to control as much as possible, even if it’s harder now with internet and stuff.

"Some things that I wanted to go out, other people didn’t want to go out, because the record company was going to have a problem with it.

"It’s all been a learning experience for me in feeling confident enough to show these sides of myself that I confided and entrusted to Sophie.”

Naturally the environment was more controlled when it came to filming the concert footage, shot last autumn over two nights at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. Yet Jones still insisted on a spontaneous approach as she performed hits such as ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ and ‘Pull Up to the Bumper’.

“Initially when I saw Grace performing these songs, even just three songs at corporate functions, I’d be there with this stupid small camera buffeted by the crowd,” Fiennes recalls.

“I was like, ‘Shit, this performance is incredible and I haven’t got the means to capture it’. Also, what you’re preserving is an aesthetic, the performative aspect that has changed since Grace’s One Man show. I wanted to capture her performance as it is today and do it as a response to her living theatre.”

Fiennes calls Jones “a high stakes performer” who favours taking risks over rehearsing in order to keep her performances alive.

“I don’t go to most of my rehearsals and maybe that does give it an edge,” Jones says. “I think sometimes things are too rehearsed so that you lose something, you overdo it, overthink it, you lose that live magic feeling of ‘Oh my God I’d better get this right or it will be a total mess’.

"There is a kind of adrenalin from the panic you have in trying to get it right.”

The film’s title itself refers to the life and art of Grace Jones. ‘Bami’ is the Jamaican word for bread while ‘bloodlight’ not only refers to the light above a recording studio, but to the kind of light in which she grew up and now performs.

“In Jamaica we didn’t have electricity much at the time so it was beautiful soft lighting from oil lamps. It had a huge effect on me creatively.”

That her mother was a seamstress instilled in her an interest in fashion, eventually leading to her success as a model alongside the likes of her friend and flatmate Jerry Hall in Paris.

Jones’s connections to the fashion world remain strong and in the film she called on some of her old designer friends, like Issey Miyake and Jean-Paul Gaultier whose outfit she wears in ‘Pull Up to the Bumper’. She also wears Irish designer Philip Treacy’s remarkable hats.

Perhaps her most significant influence during those years was her former lover, Jean-Paul Goude, the French photographer responsible for helping her create the androgynous early 1980s image.

He is also the father of her son, Paulo, a musician with a three-year-old daughter on whom the unlikely grandma dotes.

It all makes for a highly entertaining look at one of pop cultures most interesting figures.

Grace Jones: Bloodlight And Bami opens in selected cinemas on Friday.


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