You could fill up a book — or perhaps another movie — with the things that Sophie Fiennes has left out of her documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami.
The documentary’s subject is the fabulous superfreaky Jamaican-born supermodel and disco queen who still cuts a charismatic and outrageous otherworldly figure decades after she scored hits like “Pull Up the Bumper” and “Slave To the Rhythm” that made her a star, in England in particular and among gay audiences and fashionistas worldwide.
The movie’s title refers to both Jamaican slang for a recording studio red light and a type of flatbread, but that’s never explained. Bloodlight’s meager structure is provided by performance scenes in which the statuesque singer — it’s hard to believe she’s only 5 foot, 9 inches tall — wears a remarkable series of gravity-defying hats and masks and is riveting on stage, an undeniable star.
The film was shot over a period of roughly five years beginning in 2005. Between the in-concert scenes, Fiennes — who previously directed two movies about philosopher Slavoj Žižek — follows Jones to Jamaica, where the singer visits family and presents her mother with a fantastically flowery church lady hat that suggests fashion sense runs in the family.
The uncompromising verité project is presented completely without context. There are no talking-head experts and no archival footage or photos. No background whatsoever is provided when an apparently infamous incident is discussed in which Jones slapped a male BBC TV host live on air in 1981. Might we want to know more about that, or see a clip? Too bad, you’re supposed to know about it already.
Those not already clued in to Jones’ early life are left in the dark. Bloodlight would lead you to believe, for instance, that the glamazon-to-be spent all of her formative years in Jamaica, though she moved to Syracuse, N.Y., at age 12. We don’t hear anything about rooming with Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange, dating Dolph Lundgren, or the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill.
And we certainly don’t learn anything about her early 1970s years in Philadelphia, when Jones starred in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at St. Joseph’s University, worked as a Playboy bunny, and served as a secretary and social companion to “well-known libertine, bon vivant, and man about town” Harry Jay Katz. You’ll have to read Jones’ I’ll Never Write My Memoirs to get those kind of details.
Still, Jones, who turns 70 this month, comes off as complex and compellingly human, fascinating to watch and overhear. She gets angry with musicians Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare for not showing up at the studio as promised during the recording of her self-funded 2008 album Hurricane.
And she’s ticked off at a French TV producer for pairing her with scantily clad female dancers in a production number. “I look like the lesbian madam in a whorehouse!” she says. She then feels guilty for taking money out of the dancers’ pockets. “Now they’ll hate me,” she laments.
Later, she sips champagne while wearing only a fur coat in her Paris hotel room and explains the key to success in the cutthroat music business: “Sometimes you have to be a high-flying b—.”
The trouble is that Bloodlight is so formless and completely without momentum that it drains the energy out of even those set pieces. The movie clocks in at just under two hours and feels considerably longer. As it ticks on, it achieves an unlikely and perhaps not entirely unintentional feat: It makes Grace Jones kind of boring.
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
- Directed by Sophie Fiennes. With Grace Jones. Distributed by Kino Lorber.
- Parents guide: Not rated
- Running time: 1 hours, 55 mins.
- Playing at: Ritz East