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Capturing the power and personality of true icon Grace Jones

We speak to Sophie Fiennes about her stunning film Bloodlight and Bami, a beautiful insight into the star’s life

Filmmaker Sophie Fiennes set out to unpack the many public and private sides of Grace Jones, a woman, artist and auteur the world thinks it knows so well, with her latest documentary Bloodlight and Bami. Across five years, Fiennes is a silent observer, a creative presence and friend to the musician, documenting rare and raucous performance, the swirling lead-up to 2008’s Hurricane and snapshots of a make-up free, almost childlike Grace enclosed in family life, at home in Jamaica.

Jones is one of very, very few artists that tower over that intersection of creative industries. The Jamaican pop queen is adored for commanding, experimental performances in New York basement clubs, populated by party monsters and the Factory circle, as well as the international festival circuit she’s spent decades dominating. She’s also intensely referenced across fashion movements as a fearless, sharp-angled, androgynous muse of Helmut Lang and Riccardo Tisci, never without Philip Treacy headgear. An autonomous art piece captured by Jean-Paul Goude, an icon with a driving disco beat and intriguing lyrics for outsiders and inner divas across the world. Ladies and gentlemen, designers and queer debutantes, voguers, disco dancers and art lovers: Miss Grace Jones.

There are moments in the doc that cement the larger-than-life, machete-sharp character with a biting humour that’s been captured on stage and in notorious TV interviews. She angrily taps with pink acrylic nails onto a battered flip phone while in the studio, asking producers to just do what they fucking promised. A stomping performance of “Slave to the Rhythm” quickly cuts to Jones wishing that her "pussy was as tight" as the oysters she shucks. One comical moment sees her dryly ask a French TV showrunner about an outrageously tacky, pink feathery set-up with girls in lingerie: “I look like a brothel-keeper yes? I am the madame, and these are my girls.”

Other times, Fiennes’ lens is trained on a more tender, introspectively curious side. She coos over her baby granddaughter, playing with the light to make the infant open her eyes, and confesses to photographer and old lover Goude that he always had her under his spell. In her home country Jamaica, a background of intense family love, abuse and struggle is unpicked, as she sucks on coconuts, eats grilled fish with her fingers and swims in a misty lagoon at dusk. She jumps from French, English and Jamaican accents in social settings. There is never a question though as to which side is more authentic, or more real. What we see is the true grit, beating, red-hot core of a woman that lives life, as she calls it, like a “gypsy”: unlimited by the constraints of identity, gender or society.

Fiennes has created a triumphant, chameleonic picture of the artist that’s sure to surprise and intrigue even the biggest Grace fan. What makes it so special is the obvious connection Fiennes (even as a silent observer) and the musician have, a collaborative, moving portrait of not just the artist, but how she sees the world around her.

We speak to Fiennes below about navigating that connection, unmasking an icon and Grace’s enduring legacy.

Was there ever a hesitancy about pulling back that cloak of mystery and character that surrounds a figure like Grace? I know she objected to a particular image where she had her eyes closed, singing ‘Amazing Grace’.

Sophie Fiennes: I think she made a decision, fully committing to showing another side to herself; that was a personal challenge. She’d never been photographed without makeup on, and we saw her pushing herself. I think that she trusted me and my eye. When you think of Grace Jones, it’s immediately about that powerful visual, and I think she kind of intuited that I could capture all of that with the force and power of her beauty, and the mystery of beauty itself.

The mystery of a beautiful woman is an untapped area I think. We assume it’s related to youth, but what you see in Grace Jones is it’s much more mysterious and enduring, because it’s about her spirit. She trusted we could feel it - all her masquerades are fascinating, that’s part of the domain of being female she sees, to play with those guises.

And there’s never a question of authenticity with these guises. Perception as a fan or spectator or even a friend, seeing these sides of her for the first time, is so intriguing too.

Sophie Fiennes: I think that that’s the thing about Grace, and she chooses her collaborators wisely and trusts her instincts. We had this connection that we played with across filming. I really feel that strong, positive excitement from audiences seeing it, and they know that it’s not a mediated piece by another corporate or institutional industry. It’s a collaboration between Grace and I.

I had final cut, none of the people I brought on board to finance had any kind of hold on the story. We were able to be authentic even if it’s within her masquerade or performance. The performance is where something can happen that’s more real than the reality of our daily lives, where we’re always kind of performing. We’re taught at school: don’t interrupt, where little girls are rewarded for being polite, pretty or whatever. We’re all trained in the performance of social interaction and our sense of our being is so shaped by that. Grace is liberated because she’s anarchic and breaking free all the time, playing with possibilities.

She’s chameleonic across the whole documentary - accent-jumping, as a grandmother, performer, speaking to Jean-Paul Goude. How do you navigate her gaze and your gaze, being a silent observer but also her friend?

Sophie Fiennes: You have to be very sensitive in every moment, making sure you don’t step on your footage. I think Grace and I, in an unspoken way, knew what we wanted, what we wanted to pursue, like drilling into a well and finding water. I remember Anselm Kiefer (the artist and subject of her documentary Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow) saying, ‘Sophie why aren’t you talking to me’, ‘why aren’t you speaking to me anymore’, it’s like ‘shut up, i’m filming’! Grace totally understood my style. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

That plays out so deeply sensually as well.

Sophie Fiennes: I’m also thinking about how I frame it: the images and layers of potential meaning they might carry. Like the little hummingbird which is the emblem of Jamaica, the style of transitions. I captured the hummingbirds, and I’m thinking of Ariel in The Tempest, his song, ‘where the bees suck / there suck I’. You see, on the island, a hummingbird sucking, then there’s Grace sucking from a coconut and then walking off stage. She is the bird, drawing from nature.

I’m trying to create these connections all the time, always trying to allow my mind to feel what the image might be doing or communicating. Like when Grace is playing with the light and how it hits her baby granddaughter’s head. It’s a tiny baby but it’s a big image, filling the frame, this small person in huge close up. When Grace saw the film, she said, ‘I find it so fascinating that Athena looks like an old person’. A new baby comes into the world and looks like the oldest person in the film. It’s really about being imaginative with the visual world.

“She’s this fascinating image that we can’t take our eyes off; the energy, the force of her spirit, her anarchic unpredictability. We’re looking at her all the time, but how does she look, what’s her view on the world?”

How do you distill five years of this?

Sophie Fiennes: I spent six months poring over the edit, writing down every single half minute. Much less relevant to the big investment of time across filming is the analysis of the footage and what it’s doing. To me first and foremost, how do I feel when I play this back? When you think, ooh, that’s made me feel something. I found this correlation between her fascination with looking and as someone that we look at. She’s an object of our gaze, she’s this fascinating image that we can’t take our eyes off; the energy, the force of her spirit, her anarchic unpredictability, her beauty. We’re looking at her all the time, but how does she look, what’s her view on the world? She takes great pleasure in the visual, that’s why she loves dressing up, that’s why she loves the hats, so I’m really trying to bring you into her eyes.

That’s interesting - a long-time subject of wonder finally being shown as the spectator.

Sophie Fiennes: There’s so many ways I could unpack the structure of the film - like how she sees and photographs Jamaica. She’s framing it herself, when she’s in the town telling a Rasta guy selling hats, ‘You’ve got the circles round your eyes like my daddy’.

Jean-Paul Goude makes her buckle at the knees because the quality of his looking turns her on. He’s looking with such an intensity, there’s an investment in it as a photographer that’s erotic. There’s that quality in the gaze that a woman sees. Grace talks about her father closing his eyes when he dies, and her shock and horror at the annihilation of his visual. Or when she’s trying to provoke and stimulate the little baby to try and open her eyes, and then she says to Jean-Paul, ‘If I’m stuck in a bed, I want a view, I want to see changes, seasons’. She’s insistent about what she will see, and that informed my understanding of what she feels about herself in the world.

The moments with her family are particularly eye-opening. Though her music and the film set her family life as a focal point, much of the media surrounding her leaves that out of her image. Was this important for you to validate?

Sophie Fiennes: At a screening in Edinburgh an anthropologist told me about her doctorate on Pentecostalism. She was saying it was amazing how much Grace has always talked about this and no one wanted to engage in it. No one wanted to hear it, but church is all about energy and music and the excitement of that. That’s why there’s so much fantastic music that comes from black America and Jamaica.

I didn’t know what she was doing everyday, she’d just call and invite me. Like, ‘I’m going to Jamaica for 3 weeks and you should travel with me’. I think she wanted to work through her phobia of Jamaica, to be able to love it on new terms. And I think to help her parents deal with the fallout of all their children. It was important for her to go back and excavate the remains of her experience. You see Noelle talking about the beatings and the child abuse, for example.

“I think Grace and I, in an unspoken way, knew what we wanted, what we wanted to pursue, like drilling into a well and finding water”

Grace also talks a lot in the film about the influence her violent stepfather (Mas P) had on the masculinity she performs on stage.

Sophie Fiennes: I found it riveting. You know in psychoanalytic terms, once something becomes conscious, it doesn’t inhabit you in the same way? I think her performance changed once she realised this. If you look at ‘A One Man Show’, when she’s walking in the rain, you see Mas P in her. But I didn’t want to get analytical like that, I didn’t want the film to start going backwards to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. I didn’t want her childhood experience to dominate our feeling about Grace, there’s many things to feel.

She’s somehow not a victim despite the things she's experienced, she refused to be. The performance we shot was vital though because it's cathartic. I know some performers who have had abusive childhoods and there’s something that gets worked through them. There’s a parental gaze at play. That they’re trying to say ‘look at me now, look what I’ve become’. It’s communicated in her performance.

Watching the documentary, those songs that are so classic are suddenly permeated with new meaning, they’re placed beautifully.

Sophie Fiennes: I tried to construct the film like a musical where the songs create structural shifting points or they reconcile the narrative. I was trying to think of inventive ways to make it as though she’s telling the narrative from the stage. Intimate conversations create a parallel voice as she performs. I wanted to create as much proximity to Grace in the form of a film as I could.

Ending the doc with the scenes in the church, her late mother singing, feels very cathartic.

Sophie Fiennes: I wrote to her mother before she died. I sent Noelle a letter to read to her, saying you brought up some brilliant people and it's a better place for it. I knew she was very happy to be in the film with her song. Grace and her were thick as thieves. I’m happy that the film starts with Grace saying ‘my mother is waiting for me’.

Capturing her mother before she passed is a wonderful memorial.

Sophie Fiennes: I started making films when my mother died as a tiny little nudge against mortality. The uncanny nature of film capture. Many people in the film have passed away; I hope it’s not the curse of Bloodlight and Bami.

My friend, the brilliant psychoanalyst and writer Darian Leader, wrote a book about mourning. He said before that he couldn’t find one book about the subject. It’s a necessity of creating work. It’s all about the engagement with our life. That’s why I think people are very uplifted when they see the film, because there’s this sense of Grace’s commitment to life. We shouldn’t be limited by identities or fake constructions.