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KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES

Sophie Fiennes, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, 2017, 16 mm and video transferred to 2K video, color, sound, 115 minutes. Grace Jones.

TIME IS A METRIC for B-listers, the epigones, the basic. It is not for Grace Beverly Jones. “I’m often asked how old I am—the world likes to know a person’s age for some reason, as if that number explains everything. I don’t care at all. I like to keep the mystery,” the singer-actress-model-supernova declares in her 2015 auto-biography, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. (The title repurposes the first line of “Art Groupie,” a track on her 1981 album, Nightclubbing.) For GBJ, age is nothing but a number—as in a numeral and an anesthetizing bit of irrelevant data. And time is but a hollow, ever-spinning circle: “I get onstage and tell everyone I am ten years older than they think, and then hula-hoop for twenty minutes. That’s my age—that’s how I measure it.”

We see Jones gyrating, spectacularly keeping that plastic ring in motion, while performing “Slave to the Rhythm” live during the opening minutes of Sophie Fiennes’s not entirely successful Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, the first feature-length documentary devoted to the legend. Jones’s go-go-inflected song was first released in 1985. But when was this footage shot? “I don’t believe in time,” Jones declares in her book. Neither, it seems, does Fiennes, who provides no indication of year or place in this nearly two-hour chronicle, which captures Jones on tour, backstage, in presidential hotel suites, at photo shoots, during a visit with family in Jamaica—where she was born, per Wikipedia, in 1948 and spent the first decade or so of her life. (Re: my sourcing of her birthdate, I refer you to Jones’s piquant description of the internet in I’ll Never Write My Memoirs: “in many ways the population of the world having an acid trip.”)

Still from Sophie Fiennes’s Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, 2017, 16 mm and video transferred to 2K video, color, sound, 115 minutes. Grace Jones.

Nor does Fiennes, who also edited Bloodlight and Bami, identify anyone who appears in the film. (A deficit of standard doc signposts similarly impairs Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, Fiennes’s 2010 portrait of Anselm Kiefer.) This lack of information may be a liability for those who don’t recognize the elfin man in Breton stripes as Jean-Paul Goude, perhaps Jones’s most significant collaborator; he designed her ineradicable album covers from the 1980s (on which the singer appears, in her own words, as “midway between machine-ness and she-ness”) and directed the extraordinary, avant-Kabuki A One Man Show (1982), a forty-five-minute hybrid of concert footage and music video showcasing Jones at the height of her New Wave–avatar phase. (He is also the father of Jones’s only child, Paulo Goude, who also appears in the documentary.) Even those of us well-versed in GBJ’s career arc—those who could, say, rattle off the names of her first three Tom Moulton–produced albums—may wonder who that slightly disheveled, plummy-voiced British white guy is, the one sitting with Jones in the recording studio in Fiennes’s film. He gently beseeches Jones not to upbraid too harshly Robbie Shakespeare, the bass-playing divinity who is here on the receiving end of her scolding, delivered in light Jamaican patois over the phone: “What ting catchin’ up on you?”

For GBJ, age is nothing but a number. And time is but a hollow, ever-spinning circle.

It’s during this segment that the lack of any kind of temporal marker is especially baffling, even distracting.The English gent, it turns out, is Ivor Guest, one of the producers of Hurricane, Jones’s most recent album, and her first after a nineteen-year gap; it was released . . . in 2008. (Guest is also credited as the musical director of the live concert performances in Bloodlight and Bami.) As Jones chides Shakespeare for giving her the “runaround” about the sessions for Hurricane, the eye is drawn to the device she’s using to express her pique: a dumbphone. This is likely not a Luddite affectation on Jones’s part, as I had first thought before I pieced together the chronology of the film, but simply a reflection of the cellular technology then still prevalent. Even the most audaciously out of time can be casually au courant—or as Jones, in quasi-Wildean mode, writes in her book: “I am keeping up with whatever I need to keep up with without it looking like I am trying to merely stay up-to-date.”

Still from Sophie Fiennes’s Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, 2017, 16 mm and video transferred to 2K video, color, sound, 115 minutes. Grace Jones.

Viewed charitably, that credo further serves, sort of, as the organizing principle of the documentary devoted to her. Most of Bloodlight and Bami—the subtitle is Jamaican vernacular for, respectively, the red illumination that signals when a recording is in session, and bread—was shot between 2005 and 2010. The documentary had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. It is a tardy movie, in many ways not up-to-date. But Bloodlight and Bami’s puzzling lateness is mitigated by the fact that it centers on someone whose mind, body, and artistry have defied the inevitability of senescence.

Fiennes’s film is also, intentionally or not, and for better or worse, a supplement to Jones’s autobiography. In the last chapter of I’ll Never Write My Memoirs—published two years before Bloodlight and Bami debuted—Jones discusses Fiennes’s project with typical open-endedness: “I think the film we have been making together will completely contradict this book, or confirm it, or complement it, or all three—it will be about one of the Grace Joneses in this book, or some of them, or none of them.” (The performer met Fiennes via the director’s first feature-length documentary, 2002’s Hoover Street Revival, which focuses on the Los Angeles church led by Jones’s brother Noel, who also appears in Bloodlight and Bami.) While no earthshaking augury, Jones’s prediction about Fiennes’s project is nonetheless borne out. If you have both read Jones’s book and seen Fiennes’s film, you may sense that each served as the rough cut of, or the first pass for, the other.

Still from Sophie Fiennes’s Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, 2017, 16 mm and video transferred to 2K video, color, sound, 115 minutes. Grace Jones.

Certain anecdotes go on too long both on the page and on-screen: The supernumerary paragraphs in I’ll Never Write My Memoirs devoted to Jones’s recollection of a notorious 1980 appearance on a BBC talk show, in which she slapped the host for his perceived rudeness, is matched by the immoderate amount of time eaten up in Bloodlight and Bami by her recapitulation of the same incident to her bandmates while they hang out in her dressing room. Unimaginative proposals in GBJ’s book about solving gendered power imbalances—“every guy needs to be penetrated at least once”—are echoed in the film during her reminiscing with Goude after a photo shoot.

To be sure, many of Jones’s remembrances, no matter in which medium she shares them, are invigoratingly insolent. (And also charming: A particularly delightful moment in Fiennes’s documentary finds Jones proclaiming herself “a wicked jacks player” during her Jamaican girlhood.) They’re made even more beguiling in the film by Jones’s enunciation. Her delivery comprises a dizzying number of accents and cadences, which can sometimes change from syllable to syllable in the same word: an accent GBJ describes in her book as “a kind of French-Scandi-Latin-Jamerican.” Yet while Jones looks back, Bloodlight and Bami, unlike many celebrity cine-portraits, does not. Fiennes includes no archival footage; there is no clip, for example, of GBJ’s performance of “My Jamaican Guy” in A One Man Show to augment (or fact-check) Goude’s imitation, more than three decades later, of her riveting barefoot dance during that number. We are not shown snippets from any of Jones’s films—nothing from Conan the Destroyer (1984) or A View to a Kill (1985) or Boomerang (1992), big-studio-backed products that torqued her race- and gender-tweaking brilliance into burlesque. Fiennes’s documentary remains resolutely in its present—the same verb tense of several of Jones’s best sentences in I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, such as this one: “I am not decoration; I am pure signal. I transmit.”

Still from Sophie Fiennes’s Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, 2017, 16 mm and video transferred to 2K video, color, sound, 115 minutes. Grace Jones.

The potency and accuracy of that statement are, unsurprisingly, proved every time we see Jones onstage in Fiennes’s documentary. (Additionally, the concert footage, shot on Super 16, proves restorative to eyeballs fatigued by the film’s less polished imagery.) Usually outfitted in not much more than a black corset and a Philip Treacy fascinator, Jones tears into her songs—a mix of her ’80s dance-floor anthems and tracks from Hurricane—in a contralto as robust as it was in the Reagan era. In these sequences, Bloodlight and Bami best captures Jones’s avowal in her book: “I will never retire.” That promise, like nearly everything spoken or embodied by GBJ, collapses time. It is at once prophecy, foregone conclusion, and a recast of her imperative from “Slave to the Rhythm”: “Never stop the action.”

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami opens on April 13 in New York and on April 20 in Los Angeles. The series “Grace Jones x 5” runs April 6–12 at Metrograph in New York.

Melissa Anderson is the Film Editor of 4Columns, where she is also a regular contributor.