Nudity has never seemed to bother Grace Jones. Her art has thrived, in part, on a physical candor that both shocked people and redrew the boundaries of taste, beauty and eroticism around her masculinity, ebony skin and unrelenting intensity.
She’s an iconoclast, basically. And I imagine a downside of iconoclasm is that you never get to be a human being. This is someone whose long career as a model, actress and undervalued musician has veered, sometimes uncomfortably, into both the sub- and superhuman.
(Not rated, 1:55)
So the relief of “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” is that it seeks to square the person with the provocateuse.
The documentary is a feat of portraiture and a restoration of humanity. It’s got the uncanny, the sublime, and, in many spots, a combination of both. Take the alarming sight of Jones, on the phone, pleading for two of her longtime collaborators, Sly & Robbie, to join her in the studio, as they apparently promised they would.
She jokes — I think — about resorting to “emotional blackmail,” quoting herself covering Chrissie Hynde’s song “Private Life.”
“Robbie? Robbie? Robbie,” she begs, with a polka dotted sweatshirt unwrapped on her head, her glorious, mysterious continental baritone on the brink of despair. Here we have the woman who played the formidable henchman May Day in the Bond film “A View to a Kill” and the freaky-deaky supermodel Strangé from the Eddie Murphy movie “Boomerang” — here we have Grace Jones! — trapped in a Lionel Richie song.
In a movie about someone who has shown you everything, what you’re looking for is something you never expected to see. “Bloodlight and Bami” delivers. Jones shucks her own oysters — stressfully. She does her own make up and performs her own vexed yet amusing contract negotiations. She counsels, watches, listens and sort of kids around (“Heads are gonna roll,” she sings after one sour phone call).
This isn’t a career retrospective or a treatise on the importance and wide influence of Grace Jones. (Someone should feel free to make either or both of those.) “Bloodlight and Bami” is all vérité. The director Sophie Fiennes began filming Jones in the mid-2000s andsimply observes her on stage and off.
She follows her home to Jamaica, where the diva mellows, almost unconsciously, into a daughter, sister and parishioner. She watches her record her 2008 album “Hurricane” and become a grandmother.
There’s a trip to church where Jones’ brother, Noel, preaches and her mother sings “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” There’s a night spent clubbing. Jones was in her mid-50s when the movie finds her and turns 70 next month. So for someone whose hits include the 1981 masterpiece of metaphor, “Pull Up to My Bumper,” and who was a fixture at New York’s Studio 54, her partying seems less like a splurge and more like a form of exercise.
Fiennes makes the same investment in Jones that she’s made in the artist Anselm Kiefer and twice with the cultural philosopher Slavoj Zizek. This new movie isn’t as handsome or haunting as those. A lot of it feels caught on the fly. But Fiennes’ rigor operates in a different, more intimately transparent way.
She enjoys Jones and her big, complicated family but is careful not to insert herself — or too much technique, for that matter — into family meals and various reminiscences between, say, Grace and a niece. Fiennes deploys her effects strategically, like for that night life sequence, which unfolds in a slow-motion and without natural sound. Jones is at her most vampiric but also her most free.
We’re not given any kind of chronology. We’re left to guess about what year it is or what city the shows are in. But concepts of time, space and location might actually be besides the point when your movie stars a Grace Jones who’s determined to look inward the way she does on “Hurricane,” the most obviously personal and autobiographical of her albums. There’s a long, lovely passage built around the conjuring, recording and live performance of the song “This Is.”
And we watch Jones ruminate about the source of all that scariness and intimidation in her stage persona. It’s her abusive stepfather, and he’s got a hold on her still. This particular return to Jamaica appears to have stirred up a lot for her.
Fiennes shrewdly juxtaposes all of that inner work with its outward expression, moving from conversations to concerts. At the shows, the camera is positioned from a distance that lets you take in all of Jones, whether she’s hula-hooping or stalking around the stage, in headdresses, helmets and masks. That low voice only seems to have gained power, weight and complexity.
And the high point of experiencing the full of psychological effect might be during a performance of “Warm Leatherette,” a crashing, revved up rock song with a dance undergirding. Jones does it wearing a velvety bathing suit and a glittering mask while wielding a pair of giant cymbals that look a lot like shields.
She’s filmed from the front and then from behind, at a low angle, so you can see the muscles in her back and the eternity of her legs. You can also see the concert hall and how it suddenly seems like a coliseum. Fiennes knows what she has in these shots — for one thing, a rebuke of some of the exploitative imagery created of Jones by her ex and former collaborator Jean-Paul Goude, who makes a short, memorable appearance.
But Fiennes must also know that Jones embodies, here, a heightened version of what she always has been, a symbol of sex and strength, the pinup gladiator newly ready to reveal and defend herself.