TIFF Review: ‘Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami’ Commands Your Respect

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2017 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: As a Jamaican, it is with great shame that I confess to knowing relatively little about Grace Jones. Outside of her androgynous persona and a general sense of her iconic stature and cultural influence, she remained an almost mythical figure of a bygone era in my mind. It was on this basis that I eagerly anticipated the documentary “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami“, an up close and personal look at this one-of-a-kind woman.

Directed by Sophie Fiennes and filmed over the course of 10 years, “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” provides unprecedented access to the personal and public life of Grace Jones. Split primarily between scenes from a trip to her birthplace of Jamaica and electrifying live performances, the film delivers on the “bloodlight” and “bami” of its title. The bloodlight referring to the recording signal in the studio, while the “bami” represents the Jamaican cassava bread that gives life. In spotlighting her life and art, Fiennes thus captures a revealing portrait of a woman whose star continues to shine after all these years.

Indeed, one of the first things that strike you is Grace Jones’ ageless star power. Although approaching 70 years of age, she still commands the stage with sex appeal, charisma, and awe-inspiring talent. Clad in leg-baring couture outfits, dancing with the flexibility of a teenager and belting her chart-topping hits, you immediately get a sense of her importance to fashion, acting, and music. These captivating concert scenes are the easily the highlights of the film.

The other side of the documentary is more low key, yet no less arresting. Smartly, Fiennes hands much of the film over to Jones to explain her personal life in her own words. As Jones informs an adoring fan who asks about her return to cinema, her next film would be her own. And “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” definitely belongs to Jones, who imbues the film with honesty, humor and a down-to-earth authenticity to go with her no-bullshit diva qualities.

In other words, she keeps it real. And as her trip to Jamaica shows, she is still a true Jamaican, despite seeking greener pastures so many decades ago. As we meet her family, those familiar with the culture will recognize the food she eats (fried fish, jerk), the communal emphasis on Christian values and the ease with which she shifts between patois and twang (slang for a foreign accent).

The most insightful of these aspects is the impact of religion on her life, as it links her private and public life in interesting ways. The trauma inflicted by her strict step-grandfather Mas P (a church minister who took care of her and her siblings) is evident on her face as she explains the beatings in the name of Biblical “tough love.” And though it caused her to rebel, she intriguingly explains how she instinctively adopts his dominant persona during her performances.

“Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” may not satisfy those expecting a more thorough biography (Fiennes uses no archival footage), but Fiennes’ contemporary focus is arguably more compelling. The only thing lacking is perhaps a greater understanding of Jones’ attempts to stay relevant to new generations. Indeed, the film hints at a possible generation gap in one of its most memorable shots. In it, Jones performs for a live TV audience and we see a woman swaying to the music while a pair of girls look on utterly bored. But regardless of this under-explored detail, “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” is a must-see documentary for anyone curious about Grace Jones. It is a multi-faceted and nakedly honest portrait of a rebel, a survivor, and an incomparable icon.

GRADE: (★★★)