The first on-screen credit of “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” reads: “Hats designed by Philip Treacy.” It’s an entirely appropriate announcement of values, a reminder that style and substance are indistinguishable for Jones, the film’s enduring singer-actor-model-muse.
Treacy, millinery king of the outlandish fascinator (think Kate and William’s wedding and the late Isabella Blow), has no interest in understatement, and neither does the outlandishly fascinating woman whose body becomes a collaborating force with his work.
In addition to those never-wrong hat decisions, what follows in the winning documentary from Sophie Fiennes (“The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”) is two hours of contrasts that inform one another: sweat-inducing concert footage, intimate family reunion moments, steel-spine business negotiations, recording-studio drama, and a steadfast commitment to personal glamour that sees its subject in a Parisian hotel suite enjoying a champagne breakfast wearing nothing but a fur coat, as though this were a daily occurrence. (And it very well could be.)
At age 69, Jones remains an unclassifiable icon, a tireless CEO of her own aesthetic, and a willful iconoclast. We witness the recording artist who scolds legendary Jamaican music producer Robbie Shakespeare for not showing up to the studio when she needs him, the cultural force who mocks contemporary audiences’ unwillingness to party all night long, and the grandmother who coos over her son’s newborn.
We’re treated to the Studio 54 legend who harnessed a hurricane’s worth of nerve and seamlessly transitioned into 80s New Wave diva status, taking her worshipful LGBTQ audience along for the ride without ever succumbing to fuzzy nostalgia as the years went by. We travel with the devoted family member going home to Jamaica who picks up the beat of a lived-in domesticity with people who’ve known her since childhood. She’s somewhat more than one documentary can contain.
Fiennes knows this and doesn’t try to overstuff the film. Rather than cram seven decades’ worth of biographical events into 120 minutes — there’s a glimpse of Andy Warhol but you can forget learning anything new about Dolph Lundgren — Fiennes approaches Jones’ unique position with a clear, unsentimental directness, unburdened with shaping an easy narrative or lazy hagiography, resolutely concerned with the present. This means that longtime fans will enjoy a relatively demystifying glimpse into Jones’ private life as she lives it today, and newcomers will find themselves pleasantly confused.
The filmmaker allows Jones the space to be the crowd-pleasing singer in the concert hall whose expectations for herself “are much higher than [that of the audience],” the artist in the “bloodlight” of the recording studio working to create relevant new music, and the hometown hero sharing bami (a type of bread) with elderly Jamaican neighbors.
Jones, for her part, makes no qualitative distinctions between the spaces she occupies, not in the worlds of music, fashion, and art, nor in her day-to-day tending of a family and business. When she goes to a Jamaican church service and then, in another sequence, performs “Amazing Grace” with an attitude that may or may not be a little self-aggrandizing, it all feels exactly right. Fiennes frames Jones in collaboration with the artist’s own fluidly presentational sense of self: her shifting style, and often her very accent, dependent on her audience and location, as though performance is everything she knows.
And because this sort of existence requires tenacity over the long haul, Jones is never without a point of view. She’s shown fighting a French TV producer who not only wants her to take off her face-obscuring hat, but also subjects her to unappealing set design and sexy background dancers. (“We are visual artists. We know what things look like,” she sniffs, the shade finely calibrated for the moment.) She’s seen ruminating on the abusive religious childhood foundations of her self-described “scary” public persona, all the while dealing tenderly with that same Pentecostal family.
It’s a life — and now a film about a life — built from disparate strands of experience, but one that makes sense exactly because she is Grace Jones, and being Grace Jones means synthesizing Grace Jones from all available material. That she continues to share this with audiences is a bonding act of disco generosity, one only appreciated with repeated nights out dancing to “Pull Up to The Bumper.”
And that’s not really something a documentary can do for you. Like Jones herself, you have to put in those late hours on your own.