“I never strike without a warning,” says music, film and fashion icon Grace Jones in a new documentary about her decades-spanning career and her humble roots in Jamaica, where an abusive grandfather unwittingly contributed to the creation of her spiky, outsized persona.
In the quote, she’s referring to one of her most infamous TV appearances, as a guest on the “Russell Harty Show” in 1980. Ignored by the British host, whose back was turned to her as he focused on interviewing a man on his other side, Jones warns him not to do it again and then lightly smacks him around on live television.
The scene is an apt encapsulation of Jones, a blaze of unconventional performance and passion who’d be impossible (and ill-advisable) to ignore in any setting. Now 69, she arrived on the scene in Paris as a top model in the 1970s, then took her unique androgynous style into the music studio to become an underground dance star with early ’80s hits such as “Pull Up to the Bumper” and “Slave to the Rhythm.” She then became a 1980s movie icon with roles in “Conan the Destroyer” and the James Bond film “A View to a Kill.”
But “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami,” from director Sophie Fiennes (sister of the actors Ralph and Joseph), focuses mostly on Jones’ present, including several numbers from a globe-trotting musical tour, meeting her newborn grandchild and a trip to stay with friends and family in Jamaica, where she spent several years as a child being raised by a grandfather she and her two brothers refer to as Mas P.
“We had to read things from the Bible while we were being beaten,” she says, recalling that her grandfather kept “straps hanging on the wall, with names on them.” Jones draws a direct line between the terror and anger she felt as a child and the emotion she channeled into acting lessons and, later, into her musical career.
“I knew, in my stage act, that I was playing out Mas P,” she says. “That’s the male, dominant, scary person. I became him.”
Jean Paul GoudeBut Jones, it becomes clear, is so many things to her devoted fans, who show up in throngs after her shows to have her autograph record covers and photos. Her cutting-edge instinct for fashion sees her performing on one French TV program with a sparkling hat that entirely covers her eyes. “I look like a bug from outer space,” she jokes to the camera.
She then berates the show’s producer for making her perform on a tacky set with gyrating female dancers. “It’s like I’m in a whorehouse! Give me a f – – king break!” But her look, apart from the set, reminds you she’s a true original. (Three years ago, she publicly accused both Lady Gaga and Kanye West of ripping off her style.)
She also shares her no-holds-barred thoughts on sexual politics. “Now is the time for women,” she says. “Men, I think they all need to be penetrated at least once. Because then they’ll understand what it’s like to receive.”
With candor like this — and the seemingly boundless energy to still perform late-night, sold-out shows in a leather corset and outrageous headwear — there’s no doubt she’ll always come out on top. “If the lights fail, if the sound fails,” she says, “I can still hold the audience.”