When I find Grace Jones following the premiere of her biographical documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, she’s enjoying a steak medium-rare and a glass of red wine. The first words she speaks to me — in a British-tinged accent — are advice on how to dine: “Never drink water while you’re eating. Only wine. And hot sake if it’s sushi.”
In person, Jones is rather slight in stature — shocking considering her monumental stage presence, which catapulted the artist into stardom during the drugs-and-disco Seventies. There has never been, and will never be, a performer quite like Jones, whose muscled, androgynous figure painted in glitter and gold slashed through the club scenes, almost single-handedly reinventing the mystique of female sexuality into something that shimmers with danger and bravado.
When Bloodlight and Bami director Sophie Fiennes picked up a camera and started following Jones for the project, it was around the time of the recording of the 2008 album Hurricane — Jones’s first new music in fifteen-plus years. (The doc, which was released theatrically last week, continues to screen locally at Metrograph and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.) But as Fiennes’s camera attests, even in waiting a figure of Jones’s power emerges as nothing less than indelible in the pop-cultural consciousness. “Things that are unique always stay unique,” Jones says in between bites, commenting on her own miraculous staying power. “People make a lot of copies of it, but you know the real thing.” Fiennes sits beside her, acting the hypewoman, nodding along with all of Jones’s -isms.
“You have to work with the right people,” Jones continues. “Being safe is not creative. Being safe is like garbage in the gutter. To get what you really want, you have to risk not getting anything, and there are no assurances in life. A lot of things can feel almost, but the thing is not to compromise, because when it feels right, then you have to say, ‘This is my cake.’” She reaches for another piece of steak and sip of wine, as if to announce that this interview will not stop her from devouring what she desires at this very moment.
“Look,” she says, “[producer Chris] Blackwell, I’m sure had ideas for me to make millions selling records, but what we did is just as fresh today as it was then, and it’s going the distance. It’s forever, and that’s my intention.” Jones voices suspicion of artists who calculate the money they can make before thinking about the work itself, but this isn’t some form of latent class blindness she’s displaying; rather, it’s the belief that art should never be treated as a “career” in the first place. And if it turned out she couldn’t live off her art the way she wanted to make it? “I would probably just do makeup,” she answers, without a hint of hesitation.
But she understands the risks budding creators must take. In the doc, we see Jones perform on a French television show, thronged by dancers dressed as Victoria’s Secret vixens. Jones’s aghast face says everything she feels in that moment — that this is a gross miscalculation of how to visually pay homage to her subversive sexuality onscreen. “But these women were artists,” she counters. “I saw them as people instead of male fantasy. I know they won’t get to work again if they stand up and say, ‘You know, I don’t feel good in this outfit.’ They’re building their careers, and I’ve been through that.” Did that ever stop her from speaking up? “No. I would step up, and they would say, ‘OK, we’ll never have her back.’ You have to take the risk that what you believe in that moment is everything.”
Fiennes has herself gone out of bounds to make her films, which rarely follow the traditional trajectory of single-subject documentaries. This is true certainly of Bloodlight and Bami, which is nonlinear and suspended in time: far more an impressionistic portrait than a narrative. The director is now a full-fledged family friend after so many years of working with Jones. She also collaborated with Jones’s brother, Noel, on the documentary Hoover Street Revival. Though Noel is a preacher, Jones contends they’re two sides of the same coin.
“My church is my shows, and that’s my rock-and-roll church, whether it’s Studio 54 or the [Paradise] Garage with Larry Levan,” Jones says. “You do get hypnotized. It’s a spiritual hypnotism, and you come out feeling — wow.” Fiennes chimes in to tell a story about Brian Eno declaring that “church is all libido,” and Jones laughs — but she’s in agreement with Eno. “Whether it’s the church or the disco, you’re all there for the same purpose,” she notes. “And I believe when you all go for the same purpose, it’s powerful.”
Jones’s own path to the clubs was by accident. She’d always wanted to be a language interpreter. It was only a lucky coincidence that she’d stumbled into an acting course at Syracuse University. “I liked the teacher, and it’s like, ‘Follow the yellow brick road,’ and I’m on stage, and they’re telling me I can sing when I don’t think I can. But some things grab you, and they don’t let you go.” What really connected Jones to performance in that class, however, was her channeling of her childhood caregiver in Jamaica — a domineering, sometimes-violent man named Mas P. And as she drifts into the memories of how and when she realized she had become Mas P in her performances, a thick Jamaican accent usurps her speech.
“I had no idea I was emulating him,” she says. “It came up while I was studying for my first film [Ossie Davis’s Gordon’s War]. I take things quite seriously. I don’t want to go into a movie as ‘the rock singer’ Grace Jones. I learned the Strasberg method. My teacher had to get into my head to analyze who I was, and all this stuff about Mas P came out.”
In Bloodlight and Bami, Jones returns home to Jamaica for a family reunion of sorts, and though she and Fiennes insist to me they did not purposely focus on the memory of the long-dead Mas P in their story, he’s a character whose menace is felt in every frame, a ghost who haunts Jones and her brothers. To exorcise this demon of her past, she simply became him on stage, her voice growling, eyes alight with fury. Jones, it turns out, has become a different kind of interpreter than the one she envisioned in class — more like a spiritual medium speaking in others’ tongues.
Throughout our conversation, her accent shifts from French to Jamaican to New York to American Southern and multiple British dialects, and she says she had had no idea she was doing it until she started making the press rounds for this film. “It’s not at all on purpose. I believe, as I speak, there is a visual that comes into my head. ‘Where did this story happen? This happened in Jamaica,’ so a Jamaican accent comes out. I’ve never thought about it until now.” Fiennes emits a knowing chuckle. “We’re on the stage for the Q&A in Toronto,” Fiennes says, “and I hear this strange European accent come from Grace, and then I realize that she’s just come from Belgium, and she’s sort of still there in her mind.”
Jones is a sponge, a shapeshifter, a whole-body artist. She’s a visionary, an Afro-futurist superfreak, a grandmother, a citizen of the world, a force. She says she would like to give lectures to young people if she could. But hell, young artists are already seeking her out for advice. “I get on these planes, and there would be people actually bringing me their contracts to read,” she says. “When you’re starting out, you’ll sign anything because you don’t know. That’s where 99 percent of the artists that begin, where they F up. Happened to George Michael — god rest his soul — to Prince. It happened to me. If you don’t have a mentor to help, you have to keep making mistakes to learn from it.”
Once you get Jones talking about advice, she can go on forever. As she puts it, “There is no easy in this business. It gets harder and harder. The only easy is loving what you’re doing and making sure you’re loving what you’re doing.” She jokes that she never wanted to be an example for other artists. “It’s honestly my nightmare,” she admits, explaining that the pressure to be perfect as a child made her rebel. “I started making art like, ‘OK, what I’m doing is so friggin’ out there, nobody is gonna follow me.’” But from the moment I sat down to intrude upon her dinner, Jones has offered me one unsolicited gem of wisdom after another. She has, unbeknownst even to herself, become what she most feared in life: a role model.
When I tell her this, she throws up her arms in comic delight, a hunk of meat still staked on the fork in her hand, and cries, “What a nightmare!”
The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.