Documentary bookers at film festivals quickly learn that films about musicians tend to draw large, enthusiastic crowds, and that’s certainly a lesson that the Toronto International Film Festival learned long ago. This year’s TIFF doc subjects include Lady Gaga, Eric Clapton and Sammy Davis, Jr.
But opening night belonged to Grace Jones, the imperious art-disco diva who holds court in Sophie Fiennes’ “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami.” And since she’s an art-disco diva, it makes sense that the film is an art-doc of sorts, doing away with the usual music-film staples in favor of a fragmentary portrait assembled from verite footage shot around the world over nearly a decade, along with concert sequences staged and shot specifically for the film.
You could still call this a biography of sorts, but it’s an overheard biography, made up partly of snatches of conversations that Fiennes happened to capture, from loud nightclubs to TV studios to, crucially, a trip she made back to Jamaica for a family reunion. (“Bami,” in the film’s subtitle, is a Jamaican flatbread; “bloodlight” is slang for the red light in a recording studio.)
The other part of the narrative comes in Jones’ music, in songs like “Nipple to the Bottle” that tell her story between the lines. “Bio songs,” Jones called them in a post-screening Q&A, and Fiennes added, “You could structure [her life story] through the songs.”
The portrait that emerges is of a strong-willed woman who still bears scars from the early death of her father, and from the brutal beatings dished out by the Bible-toting husband of her grandmother.
But you don’t go to “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” for armchair psychoanalysis. Fiennes aims to create a vibrant, multifaceted and elusive portrait of a woman who can be both a handful and an inspiration, and for the most part that’s what she achieves.
Does it help to come to the film as a big Grace Jones fan? Of course it does. Two hours is a long time to watch fragments in the life of even a fascinating artist like Jones.
But the concert footage is often transfixing, and naturally the audience at the Elgin Theatre was packed with Jones fanatics, making Thursday’s premiere a joyous affair.
At the end of the night, Jones and Fiennes did a Q&A with TIFF doc programmer Thom Powers, and then the grand diva returned to the microphone to thank the cheering fans.
“Maybe,” she said, “I should run for president.”
Your move, Lady Gaga.