Grace Jones has been an enigmatic performer for decades. Whether you know her from her music, or from her acting roles in Conan the Destroyer, A View to a Kill, Vamp or Boomerang, the mystery and unknown have been central to her mystique.
Jones reveals herself in the documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami. Filmmaker Sophie Fiennes, who has been friends with Jones for 15 years, filmed her recording and performing, while opening up on camera in between.
Fiennes spoke with Monsters and Critics by phone this week before Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami opened. The film is in theaters now.
Monsters and Critics: I want you to know that as we’re talking, I’m looking at a Grace Jones poster.
Sophie Fiennes: Which one?
M&C: I have the View to a Kill poster with her and Roger Moore back to back.
SF: Oh yeah, that was the one that mortified her father because none of the churches in Jamaica would let him preach when they saw that. Isn’t that where it says, “Has James Bond finally met his match?”
M&C: Yes, and he had.
SF: Yes, he had.
M&C: Was Grace reluctant to reveal any of her off stage life?
SF: No, not at all because she initiated this project. Because she had initiated it, she had made a decision to be completely free.
Having said that, because I was excited by that decision and what would happen, just to see. It’s like an experiment, or like she said, “When you conceive a child, you don’t know what it will become.” In that sense, she sowed the seed of this.
I was very careful not to involve any third parties, any corporate investors or people who might have agendas that wouldn’t necessarily sit alongside our experiment. So I wanted us to be free in that sense.
M&C: Was this a turning point for her, since she had kept up a mystique about herself for so long?
SF: I think it is a turning point for her. I think she’s liberated by it. It’s her own decision to do it, to challenge herself, to show a part of herself that she’s kept private.
M&C: What great Grace Jones moments did you have to leave out?
SF: I just went for all the strongest moments really, the ones that pack the biggest punch because I’m making a film. It’s about the relationships between moments so it’s also the contrast between different parts of Grace.
Like all of us, we’re not just one kind of a being. Human nature is actually a very broad canvas, and you can experiment and play. Society teaches us that we should behave.
Of course the great thing about Grace is that she excels in misbehaving in a way that got her into trouble, but is about her rebellion against authority and anything that would control her.
M&C: How did you know when you had finished compiling footage and had an ending?
SF: I knew that when she became a grandmother, and her father died and I got that footage in Paris. I felt that created an arc within the film and part of her life.
Once I had that, because I felt like I was documenting a certain period in her life, around the making of Hurricane which is quite an autobiographical album in many ways. But she’d been working towards those songs for a long time.
So, you know, within the frame of a feature documentary, I felt like there was enough relationship between what she was singing, her performance and what was happening in her life. But I sensed the material that I could build the structure with.
M&C: How long were you on the road with her?
SF: Well, she would call me up when she was doing something that she felt was interesting. She would say, “I’m going to Moscow. Do you want to come?” Or “come to Jamaica with me for three weeks.”
In a sense, that’s the heart of the film and that’s why the title is Jamaican words compiled for the title, Bloodlight and Bami. I think when she asked me to go with her to Jamaica, it was because she was wanting to excavate and also lay to rest this demon of her past childhood, come to terms with it or work through it.
M&C: In some way would you say she co-directed with you?
SF: No, because she didn’t look at any footage and she left it all in my hands. But we collaborated from our different positions in the project.
She didn’t want to get involved in the edit in any way but for me it was important she had as much input as she wanted to have, that it was a collaboration. And when I showed her the rough cut of the film, she had a couple of really fantastic, subtle thoughts that would actually reflect in her great creative instincts.
They were about rhythm, small things but for me they were the kind of notes that people rarely give you because they’re rarely tuned in to rhythm. She never was saying, “I don’t like how I look here” or “I don’t want that scene because it makes me come across as this kind of person and I don’t want to.”
She was not interested in controlling it in that way. I think she preferred to be free in handing it over to me which of course is frightening. That’s a responsibility for me, because I want the film to reflect her as much as possible, her as an artist and a human.
M&C: What’s an example of one of those notes she gave you?
SF: Well, the one I think was a brilliant note was at the very end of the film, when she sings the song Hurricane, to use some of the fragments of the imagery of the performance there.
I think that was a great note. Normally the credits come and they’re all black and it ends. She said, “Can’t you use some of the footage from that song.” That thought hadn’t occurred to me but that was a great note.
M&C: Were there still moments with the cameras off when you had down time with Grace?
SF: Oh yeah, a lot. Actually, once I had got to the point of knowing that I had the material for a film, I stopped shooting but I was spending a lot of time with her.
A lot of it is you want to learn a lot about how she sees herself and the world and bring that into how you form the film so the form of the film reflects what I’m learning about her.
She’ll always refer to someone, come to a country and she meets someone, they’re family. They’re not actually blood family but they’re part of her family of people. She’s a very family oriented person.
That’s about a sensibility, like the family of people who are creatively tuned into living in a certain way and people that she’s loyal to. Those people are family.
Down time with the cameras off, enjoying being with her and bringing that knowledge into the film. There’s a point where if you just keep shooting, you just can’t see the wood for the trees.
You’re going to lose so much material anyway, you’ve got to lose so much material. What you select is how you can tell the story that’s going to have the strongest kick. I always like a film to hit the audience in the solar plexus.
In terms of taking Grace Jones, this extraordinary human, this person whose image exists in the world, but also is mortal and immortal. That truth of what it means to be alive and what is the possibility of this experience for every human being, to make something of it for themselves.
And within the family of people. The material that I select is very carefully constructed to try to take people into this kind of matrix of Grace Jones’s world. As she is alive in these moments, because obviously this is just one period in her life.
With Grace, you feel like her past is in her present all the time and her future, a lot of what her images were felt like they were coming from the future.
M&C: Did she ever talk about her acting?
SF: From when I first was shooting her, the sequences of her recording the vocals for This Is, that’s I think one of the first moments that I filmed with her. And I immediately came away thinking, “Why isn’t she in more films?”
Her presence on camera and her ability to be on camera is so striking and engaging. You can’t take your eyes off her. I was surprised that she hadn’t done more films but she said that she had decided that. I don’t think she necessarily chose to go that route, as much as I feel she’s been underused in film actually.
I feel like when I saw Vamp, it’s just extraordinary. There’s this film that’s kind of dated, but her performance in it when she does that nightclub performance is just totally fresh. It’s just amazing, even though the film around her is very clunky really, but when she does that dance performance, it’s just amazing.
I think filmmakers haven’t known how to really use her. It’s quite fun to play with what would be the characters, what would be the fictions that she might be in. It’s interesting to think about that
M&C: It seems like the Bond producers and Conan filmmakers played on the extremes of her persona.
SF: What I felt was the revelation to me was that she was able to be on camera with more interiority by being herself than those roles have allowed her to show as it were. She played like cartoon characters in those films.
M&C: Which might be why they appealed to me so much when I was younger.
SF: Yeah, and it was a brilliant idea to cast her in the Bond movie. She’s played that. She’s a performer so she’s always playing with the possibility of that I think.
M&C: As an artist yourself, what’s your greatest takeaway from Grace?
SF: It’s always changing in a way because my friendship with her developed alongside this project and our lives. I think it’s really the challenge to take up the truth of one’s freedom in the world.
The demand to be free, to be free psychically, to not have limits imposed on yourself that have somehow been integrated by the demands and dictats of society. To really assume your subjective freedom.
M&C: Do you relate to her on a lot of levels?
SF: Yes. I mean, being both women there’s already a huge space of relationship there. I think we’re very visual. We both love the visual world. We’re both excited by what the visual world does to us, to others, and playing with that.
I think that’s also a point where we meet in that kind of excitement. For her as a beautiful, expressive woman, I sort of marvel at the different masks and manifestations that she can conjure. That’s beyond me.
That’s amazing, and the playfulness with which she does that and the pleasure that she has in that. And her sense of humor. Often women aren’n allowed to have a sense of humor. It’s like oh no, don’t have a sense of humor because that’s not attractive. I think we share a sense of the ridiculous.
M&C: How did you become friends 15 years ago?
SF: Because I’d made a film about her brother’s church. She saw the film and it was on the basis of that. She loved that film. That was why she suggested that we do something together.
From the moment that she saw the film, when I went and had dinner with her and we chatted, I realized what a reflective and thoughtful and conscious person she was. I remember that first conversation with her very well.