"GRACE JONES: BLOODLIGHT AND BAMI" — 2½ stars — Grace Jones, Jean-Paul Goude, Sly and Robbie; not rated; Tower
If you're already familiar with the enigmatic artist at the center of "Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami," you're far more likely to enjoy Sophie Fiennes' film. If not, you may be surprised by what you don't learn about Grace Jones.
That's a strange thing to say about a documentary, but "Bloodlight and Bami" is a strange film about a strange subject. Fiennes' effort is a contemporary portrait of a 1980s pop star who is working hard some 30 years after the height of her fame.
For most films of this nature, you'd expect a voiceover narrator, frequent cutaways to talking head interviews or at least a few superimposed titles to fill in background and context and guide the story of the film's subject. "Bloodlight and Bami" has none of these, opting instead for an intimate fly-on-the-wall style that keeps you close by the artist's side while making you piece her story together through snippets of conversations and interactions.
The result is a study in contrasts between Jones' exotic onstage personas and performances and her subdued and impoverished roots that are revealed as she travels to her home country of Jamaica to visit the friends and family she left behind.
We see Jones onstage, dressed up in strange costumes designed to showcase her long legs and imposing physique, and makeup crafted to enhance her piercing and menacing eyes. Watching her in action makes it difficult to believe Jones is anywhere near as old as she is.
"Bloodlight and Bami" is packed full of live performance footage, evidence of an artist working hard at her craft. Backstage we see the fierce personality behind the fierce performer, battling over technical issues and squaring off against a French television producer whose set design, which surrounds Jones with an entourage of lingerie-clad dancers, makes her feel like a madam in a brothel.
Jones' take-no-prisoners attitude carries over to Jamaica, where she travels to record a new album. When scheduling difficulties arise, we learn that Jones is funding the project on her own, in order to give her the freedom to record the music she wants.
It's in Jamaica that we also see an alternate, fascinating view of an artist who left abject poverty for international fame, visiting with family and old friends and attending a church where her brother is a minister.
Through these conversations we pick up bits and pieces of the singer's past, specifically the tumultuous and physically abusive relationship with her father that inspired much of her music and threatening stage persona.
The whole package manages to be intimate while keeping the audience at arm's length. We get an almost uncomfortably close look backstage (where periodic nudity and infrequent profanity would earn the film an R rating) and see Jones cradling her first grandchild.
Yet this interesting character study is also a frustrating one, especially if you have vague memories of the artist — such as her supporting role in one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Conan" films. "Bloodlight and Bami" makes no effort to fill in the blanks of Jones' story nor does it explain why this brand-new film appears to be made of footage collected some 10 years ago.
For an artist as enigmatic as Jones, though, an enigmatic documentary may be the best thing we could hope for.
"Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami" is not rated, but contains R-rated profanity and some female nudity; running time: 115 minutes.