‘Slave to the Rhythm’ singer/style icon on opening up for the camera, her ‘Black Panther’ shout-out and more
She’s been a Grammy nominee and a disco glamazon, a supermodel and a slave to the rhythm, a Bond femme fatale and Conan the Barbarian’s cohort, a style icon and a Studio 54 habitué. She is Grace Jones, and this tall, fearsome Jamaican remains an instantly recognizable celebrity and a fertile creative force. But director Sophie Fiennes’ immersive and intimate documentary, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, reveals a side of the artist rarely glimpsed by her legions of fans: unguarded, tender, down-home, vulnerable. Rather than follow the standard cradle-to-comeback trajectory of a music biodoc, slotting in vintage performances and featuring famous talking heads discussing her influence, this portrait drops viewers into the here and now of Grace’s world.
Shot and edited over the course of 12 years, Bloodlight and Bami (the Jamaican patois of the title refers to recording lights in music studios and one’s daily bread) chronicles the head-spinning international whirlwind that is Grace Jones’ life. From sterling live performances and late-night dance parties to the sessions that produced her 2008 album Hurricane, the movie follows its subject from luxurious penthouse suites to shanties in Spanish Town, Jamaica. There’s plenty of fabulous moments: Jones donning a fantastic array of headgear (her stylized nun wimple and disco-ball bowler hat, in particular, mesmerize), dressing down longtime collaborator/producer Robbie Shakespeare over the phone. But it’s counterbalanced by a lot of behind-the-curtain moments that offer a completely different view of the Nightclubbingsuperstar.
Rolling Stone spoke to Ms. Jones about the film, her plan to stage a concert in outer space and how her twerking lessons are going.
Did you like your shout-out in Black Panther?
Yeah! I was told before I went and saw it in Los Angeles; I’m going to see it again here in Jamaica. I sat too close to the screen with my brother, who is near-sighted, and I’m far-sighted, so I want to see it again. It was quite funny getting mentioned in that movie. I did a film called Shaka Zulu: The Last Great Warrior,where I play an African Queen, so I went ‘Wow.’ It brought all that back in a way.
There’s this distance and a real sense of toughness in both your persona and the characters you’ve played in films. And yet in Bloodlight and Bami, you reveal a more intimate side.
In those films, I’m playing characters. I’m trying to make sure you don’t think about Grace Jones in those films; you think about May Day (A View to a Kill) or Zula (Conan the Destroyer) or Strangé (Boomerang). I try to make sure those characters were completely apart from Grace Jones in performance.
Your 1982 longform video/concert film, A One Man Show, has never been available outside of VHS. Is there any chance it will ever be reissued?
Well, we’re talking about it, Chris Blackwell and me. We were producers of that film. It would be fantastic. I remember David Bowie told me that the performance on that film, you could just bring it out again and again after so many years, because it was really so far ahead of its time. People had their mouths falling down when they watched. It was so different. It really does stand the test of time, so we are talking about doing that. I just hope we can find the masters!
What struck you about Sophie’s film?
Ah, well [laughs] … what struck me was that I thought it was going to be so difficult to pull together. We had so much material after 12 years, and I didn’t see any of the film before it was finished. I love the way it went in and out of the performance side, the recording side. She really captured the stuff that you go through as you are working, doing talk shows and concerts. And then the whole part of me in Jamaica with my family, the way she went back and forth connecting [my] private, intimate life to the part where you’re performing, and then the audience is out there onstage with me. I just loved the way she saw that vision, because I lived it like that.
Was there any part of the film where you thought it was too personal?
No, never! Sophie, when she was filming, was like a fly on the wall. Obviously, I felt very comfortable with her, so she was like an insider. I felt like I could be myself.
Sophie also made a film about your brother [Fiennes’ debut film, Hoover Street Revival, focuses on Grace’s brother, Bishop Noel Jones]. What was it about that film that made you decide to let her tell your story?
The film with my brother was completely different: It was dealing with his church in South Central L.A. But that’s how I met her initially. I was invited to a screening for my brother’s film, and we hit it off. And I just said, “We should do something.” I also saw her other films and I knew she definitely has a vision and a passion for what she’s doing. So I felt completely safe in a way that I could be unsafe, you know? I could also let everything hang out. Literally!
In the film, there’s footage of you in the studio with Sly & Robbie working on Hurricane. During the Eighties, you worked with everyone from Nile Rodgers to Trevor Horn to C+C Music Factory. So what led you back to Sly & Robbie some 26 years after working with them on albums like Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing?
When Chris Blackwell put Sly & Robbie together with me in 1980, I believe that being Jamaican and getting to know me – it just felt right. It just felt like this is when my voice is at its best, together with them. They’re like my brothers. I fight with them, I beat them up, but we’re like brothers and sisters. My voice seems to just meld perfectly with their rhythms, with their style. I love the fat bass, the percussion and rhythms. And I think they experiment more with me than with probably anyone else. We don’t mind experimenting together.
Are you working on a new album now?
Yes! I’ve been working on it for five years now. Hopefully another month to just work and not go anywhere and not have outside things happening. Between my memoir, the touring and now the film, we have to keep putting it on hold. But it’s very, very powerful. Sly & Robbie are on there in bits and pieces. I always call them in and say, “Let’s see what you can do with this.” And they always find something.
There’s a part in your memoir where you dismiss most modern pop stars for not being original and having their own vision – but what do you think about Jamaican artists? Have you ever thought about making a dancehall album?
Oh, I love dancehall! We do have a dancehall track that I’ve been performing live and on tour, but we haven’t put it in record form yet. It’s called “Shenanigans” and it has a dancehall riddim to it. But when we record it, I’d like it to drop even heavier, with a bit more edge. It’s too sweet still. When we finally do it, it needs to be edgier. I tried that whole bottom-shaking, twerking movement and almost broke my neck standing on my head to get my ass twerking. It’s really hard! But I’m taking lessons.
In the documentary, you reference Timothy Leary and talk about disco as being “like going to church with people on hallucinogens dancing.” How influential was acid on you in terms of your development?
It was like therapy, the way that I did it. I was born again in my own way; my eyes opened, the world got bigger but smaller at the same time. Bigger in the sense that it was mind-opening. It freed me up. I was a nudist during that time as well, so you get comfortable with yourself naked. And then from there, you see how small the world really is when you start traveling all over the place. One time I even hitchhiked to Paris on acid. It was amazing. You meet welcoming people and have good conversations and then grow from that. You learn just how small the world really is. It just encouraged learning and growing really with me. I felt like a gypsy going around the globe.
I always wanted to go to outer space, too. I always wanted to do a concert in outer space with David Bowie, Michael Jackson and myself. At one point I was like, “Let’s just call Bill Gates and have him fund it for outer space.”
Sadly, it would just be you now.
Well, now, with all the technology, you never know. Now we can just have a virtual reality concert in space.