Taking a semi-surreptitious swig of wine straight from the bottle in the passenger seat of a car outside a modest church in Jamaica, Grace Jones admits some trepidation about going in. An older female relative dismisses her worry, saying to just be herself.
That, Jones says, is the problem.
This scene from Sophie Fiennes’ documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, opening in the Bay Area on April 27, shows how the enigmatic musician, who exudes the charisma of a nocturnal feline predator, interacts with her family.
Jones is haunted by the specter of her strict Pentecostal father, a frightening-sounding disciplinarian everyone called Mas P (for “master”). Even in death, he is spoken about with a certain solemnity, as if his spirit could mete out further punishment from beyond. But however unapproachable or even quasi-alien Jones’ androgynous on-stage persona may be, she is warm and engaged with her extended relations. Indeed, watching this film, you come to realize that Jones’ on-stage demeanor is no persona at all. It is merely her.
“That would be awful, to play a character on stage,” she tells SF Weekly by phone from Jamaica. “That would be like wearing a straitjacket. You’d have to be insane.”
Shot over 12 years, the documentary includes performances of hits like “Love Is the Drug” and “Slave to the Rhythm,” and plenty of interstitial tissue in which she opines about this or that. The subtitle refers to a light in a recording studio and a type of Jamaican bread, and one of the film’s strengths is the way it juxtaposes Jones’ imperiousness in the industry with her occasional humble roots. At one point, the viewer sees her in a hotel suite arguing with a hapless assistant who has failed to make the proper arrangements. At another, she forces a French television producer to radically rework a performance of her cover of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” because Jones feels that she looks like the madam of the bordello and the four female dancers are her girls.
Informed there are no male dancers, Jones essentially cancels the entire thing — an uncompromising diva, but one aware enough to feel sorry for the dancers, who did nothing wrong and, in all likelihood, “hate me.” That she takes on such commercial work to fund her artistic projects and lifestyle doesn’t enter into consideration nearly as much as her intense dislike of losing creative control.
“I believe if it’s about me, then I should be involved,” Jones says. “I mean, I’m not involved in every single aspect, but I like to learn. … And there’s no one to blame at the end of the day if I get it wrong. Show business is a business, and I believe you should know about your business.”
What’s an example of something she’s learned how to do over time?
“Sing,” she says.
Jones has also learned how to read contracts, which she calls one of the “toughest” tasks because “the language they’re in is so foreign to someone who does not study that.” But beyond a wariness that someone may gain the upper hand if she lets her vigilance down, Bloodlight and Bami reveals that Jones’ biggest irritation is with the decline of nightlife. The figure who sang about being an ice machine on “Nightclubbing” now sits in the back of a cab lamenting that people in Paris and New York don’t go out like they used to. We know the reasons why: Rent is expensive and even hedonists have to get up and go to work in the morning, TMZ and social media make celebrities cautious about being highly intoxicated in public, and wellness is a cult as pernicious as the worship of she-bears in pre-Christian Scandinavia. But Jones — who will be 70 in May — can hardly adjust to this new reality. Does she really think everyone in New York goes to bed at 11:30?
“I don’t know if they go to bed early or if they pretend they go to bed early,” she says. “But you’d go from one club to the other to the other, 24-7, and now when I’m staying in a motel, you couldn’t even get Champagne delivered to the room after the cut-off time.
“You can’t spend your money!” she adds. “If someone offers to buy a whole bunch of Champagne, they’re like, ‘No, we’re closing.’ A lot of after-hours places you could go, we would go at four in the morning and leave at midday. Now, they don’t exist. The Garage — we used to go to bed at three and be ready by four and go party. That’s not happening anymore.”
Somehow, though, Champagne finds its way to her. Jones’ 2015 book I Will Never Write My Memoirs revealed that her standard concert rider includes, among many other things, six bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal and two dozen oysters on ice, unopened because “Grace does her own shucking.” Watching her with her entourage, clearly on a good one, is to feel included even if it’s sometimes hard to follow what anyone is talking about. She’s candid about her drug use, at one point saying she’d like to experience death while on LSD with the ghost of Timothy Leary holding her hand.
“Timothy said he wanted me to play him in a film one time,” she says. “Those times: They existed. They were real.”
Just how larger-than-life Jones is remains ambiguous. Tethered to designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier, Kenzo, and the recently departed Azzedine Alaïa, Jones is a figure of the unattainable demimonde whose mainstream reach extends in no small part to her stint as a Bond villain in A View to a Kill. Musically and culturally, she is a figure of influence, but when asked if she might use it to soften the impact of Jamaica’s reputation for homophobia, she rejects the premise.
“Honestly, that’s coming from a couple guys that sing some song that got out there,” she says. “A lot of my gay friends come here and they are absolutely shocked. … My brother grew up here, gay, and he didn’t get beaten up and he still comes all the time.
“Of course, you have a very strong church,” she adds, “but as long as you respect people and you don’t bother anybody, nobody’s going to bother you. And Trump is throwing people out of the army for being transgender. Talk about homophobia, hello! It’s everywhere, but absolutely there’s lots of gays in Jamaica, darling. You need to come.”
To see Jones, in the film, staring at herself in a vanity and applying yet more makeup to her face — “More rouge!” she says at one point, “We’re going tribal!” — is to realize that when S.F.’s Museum of the African Diaspora called her a “cultural drag musician” for a 2016 exhibit, the curators were deploying the rhetorical device known as understatement. It’s why she’s been an enduring inspiration in San Francisco nightlife, the one constant visual at the Tubesteak Connection, DJ Bus Station John’s long-running Thursday night party at Aunt Charlie’s, and at Honey Mahogany’s post-screening afterparty at the Stud on Friday, April 27.
Part of the reason Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami took more than a decade to complete is that her touring and recording schedules, the writing of her book, and Fiennes’ other projects all got in the way. She works more slowly now. Jones is about a month away from completing a new record, which she’s been working on for five years. (“Only my vocals and a bit of cleaning up,” she says. “We have to tweak.”) Although she bared her exposed (and painted) torso on stage at the Fox Theater a few years ago, and famously hula-hooped through an entire performance of “Slave to the Rhythm” at Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, the former model does not seem to be running out of inspiration.
“I do love that I’m my muse, and I’ve been the muse for other artists,” she says. “I write visually. Even stuff I don’t write or co-write, I feel like there could be writing about me in it. It begins with the music.”
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
Opens Friday, April 27, at the Landmark Embarcadero and the Landmark Shattuck