Sexism and the music doc: ‘Grace Jones has had her 15 minutes’

Why Bloodlight and Bami bucks the cliched trend thats haunted films about Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse

The tragic downfall of a celebrity ingenue: a trusted, market-friendly formula for the big screen, especially where female recording artists are concerned. Documentaries about female stars tend to tread a similar narrative, involving a reductive look at personal histories, where the film-maker is less interested in the idea of accomplished musicians than of girls who supposedly dreamed too big and self-destructed through addiction and failed relationships. With this mythologising, you might say that Amy Winehouse (Asif Kapadias Amy), Whitney Houston (Nick Broomfields Whitney: Can I Be Me), Nina Simone ( Liz Garbus and Hal Tulchins What Happened Miss Simone?) and Janis Joplin (Amy Bergs Janis: Little Girl Blue) have been made more alike in death than in life.

While not without their virtue, their narratives are one-dimensional compared to films about their male counterparts. These include Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Grant Gees Joy Division and Jay Bulgers Beware of Mr Baker, in which troubled men of rock are permitted more cinematic space to be many things. Inventive explorations of the creative process of living musicians (whether Nick Cave reflecting on stage transformation to a Freudian analyst in 20,000 Days on Earth, or the genius of Bob Dylan as incarnated by no less than six actors in Im Not There) are largely a masculine domain.

Bucking this trend is Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, a vrit-style portrait of the radical Jamaican pop icon as she is today. The film is directed by Sophie Fiennes, who is critical of films that feed on the tragic carcass of music stars. There is so much fiction that circulates around dead women, she says.

She describes Jones as excessively alive, an attribute that didnt help in getting the British film industry interested. She recalls the standard response when she first tried to secure funding for the film as: Grace Jones has had her 15 minutes; isnt she quite attention-seeking?

Instead of being perturbed, Fiennes put aside institutional rejection and started shooting independently off her own bat. Fast-forward eight years to another hair-raising meeting with a commissioner. She puts on her best mansplaining voice: He said: Grace Jones is very niche. More people watching television would rather watch a maternity ward than a film about her.

Saving
Saving Grace: director Sophie Fiennes and Jones at the world premiere of Bloodlight and Bami in Toronto, 2017. Photograph: J Countess/WireImage

Other film-makers have also spoken of hitting a funding wall of resistance to a complex treatment of female musicians on screen. Director Sini Andersons The Punk Singer was a successful exploration of the influence of riot grrrl icon Kathleen Hanna, but she had to go a very DIY route to make it and has called crowdfunding a double-edged sword that puts power directly in the hands of artists but demands an exacting level of business savvy.

English folk great Shirley Collins, who only recently returned to singing after losing her voice for years as the result of emotional crisis, is the subject of offbeat and multi-layered documentary The Ballad of Shirley Collins, directed by Rob Curry and Tim Plester. Producer Paul Williams doesnt mince words on how tough it was to source backing: Perhaps the film was too subtle and visceral for a committee of so-called experts, or perhaps, as our subject is an 82-year-old woman, they think the kids wont get down with it. He felt disgusted, offended and patronised by an institutional climate he perceives as intent on only appearing to tackle entrenched bias, while not taking actual risks: All [the industry] is doing is hitting diversity quotas, while offering up countless hours of unexciting content.

For Fiennes, there was a similar sense that many would expect a film without nuance, that simply shone a light on Joness reputation for eccentric behaviour. Almost a decade in the making, the long gestation of Bloodlight and Bami reflects a determination by Fiennes to work in her own way at her own pace, regardless of the level of institutional support; to respect her subject enough to get it right.

In focusing on Jones now, rather than leaning on decades-old archive material of her famed Paris fashion coterie and Studio 54 days, the director sidestepped the most obvious sell. She was determined, she says, to avoid preconceived notions about the star: I find it strange when people ask me what I wanted to say about Grace Jones. Its more subtle than that. Its about reading the layers of whats going on within any one moment.

This world would prefer to continue to fix Grace in the celebrity category she was actively resisting and rejecting 40 years ago, says Paul Morley who was tasked by Jones to commit her recollections to paper for the 2015 book Grace Jones: Ill Never Write My Memoirs. So instead they place her in the patronising crazy woman box in order to deal with the threat and unpredictability of her presence.

Jones, who transitioned from New Yorks 70s disco underground and its more corporatised spectacle Studio 54 into new wave pop innovation, has shown a dynamic ability through her career to transcend any box that became too constricting. Her androgynous theatricality and extravagant decimation of social etiquette have fuelled her mystique, but have been consistently pushed back at by those more interested in pinning her to the label of scary diva than in her evolution as a performer. Morley believes that she intimidates the music and film industry by the fact she is so vehemently anti-cliche, anti-nostalgia, anti-sentimentality and consistently other.

Keep
Keep up with the Jones: Grace emerges from a giant tin of Quality Street in a scene from Bloodlight and Bami. Photograph: PR

In one telling scene, Jones performs her hit disco cover La Vie En Rose for French television, and is appalled to find that a very tacky stage setup positions her as the pimp in a whorehouse, surrounded by white female dancers. It was so obviously a cardboard-cutout, baby doll male fantasy, says Fiennes. I thought Grace would say get the dancers off, but her response was actually much more human. She saw these girls as people who had rehearsed, and she didnt want to deny them their work. Jones goes ahead with the show, though backstage she makes her displeasure at the way it has been framed vocally known to those in charge.

Additionally, the most infamous Jones moment, when she hit BBC talkshow host Russell Harty on live television in 1980, in what came to define the star as a scary diva in the popular imagination, seems very different when retold through her perspective. In the film, Jones calmly explains the condescension that had provoked her when he cut her out of his conversation with blue-blood photographer guest Lord Lichfield, as if she were there to be seen and not heard.

Fiennes says that as she and Jones worked on Bloodlight and Bami they shared an affinity as fellow female artists navigating a sometimes ruthlessly patriarchal business. The film is packed with insights into an industry (or outustry as Jones scathingly prefers to call it) in which white male executives tend to call the shots. She was saying she was fed up, and only wanted to work with women, Fiennes recalls. Men were too eager to contain such a boundless force as Grace, a total agent of her own experience and libido, through tired stereotypes.

In Bloodlight and Bami, trauma loops like a refrain, as Joness abusive upbringing at the hands of violent disciplinarian step-grandfather Mas P is recounted. But rather than mythologising Jones as yet another tragic star like Amy or Whitney, this layer underscores her remarkable survivalist will to transform creatively and be the master of her own fate. As Morley says: Its often the way with such singular artists as Grace, that they take longer to materialise than some of the more easily processed [musicians].

Up to now she hasnt really fitted into any of the stories being told about pop culture, showbusiness, art and style; worlds which are all much more conservative than they like to pretend. In essence, someone like Grace shows that up. Evolving and inscrutably multiple, musics female heroes are often too far ahead to ever satisfy the film industrys lazy expectations.

Grace Jones & Friends Live will be in cinemas nationwide for one night only on Wednesday 25 October; Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami will be released in cinemas from Friday 27 October. For more visit gracejonestickets.co.uk

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Marissa SafontSexism and the music doc: ‘Grace Jones has had her 15 minutes’

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