I first met Grace Jones in 2002, at a screening of the documentary I had made about her preacher brother, Bishop Noel Jones. Marie Helvin, a friend from Grace’s modelling days in Paris, brought her to see the film. Grace whooped and called back at the screen, just as if she were in church, and as the credits rolled she stood up clapping and exclaimed: “I love the smell of your film.” At the time she was embarking on making Hurricane, her first album in nearly 20 years, and she invited me to film her. Grace loves collaboration, and she is very good at it. Dropping her iconic mask and revealing herself was a necessary and exciting challenge.
It was the beginning of almost 12 years spent in her entourage — starting with a trip to join the Joneses’ extended family reunion in Kingston. Grace hired a minibus and we drove in a small group around Jamaica over three weeks, meeting locals for sunset swimming at Kingston’s Hellshire Beach, sitting up late into the night at Strawberry Hill and Goldeneye — Chris Blackwell’s Island Outpost resorts — where we worked our way through bottles of red wine (“The blood of Christ”, as Grace calls it).
We spoke about everything from her “church-burnt” childhood in Spanish Town to the stories behind the lyrics of her songs “Nipple to the Bottle” and “Williams’ Blood”. It became clear how much Jamaica and its landscape had formed her — but, of course, the Grace who I filmed stripped down and immersed in Jamaica’s natural hot spring, Blue Lagoon, is only one side of the person I came to see as a friend.
She is also the bold, electric performer, the theatrical Grace who always travels in an Issey Miyake zip-up flying suit, who insists on a stretch limo to travel to work and, like a Hollywood character in a film noir, orders a champagne breakfast, naked but for a full-length fur coat. This is the more flamboyant but no less real side of her; Grace lives on many different planes at once, subverting your expectations at every turn. (I once saw her perform after midnight at a warehouse in north London where she lasciviously taunted the audience astride the shoulders of a security guard. Five minutes after the show she met me with: “Hi! I’ve had a chicken marinading for three days. Do you fancy coming over for supper tomorrow?”) Grace is a gypsy. She doesn’t actually live in her New York apartment, it serves as an emporium of Grace Jones memorabilia, with rack upon rack of Alaïa leather trousers perfectly preserved.
Philip Treacy, whose hats feature on and off stage throughout the film, frequently questioned my agenda. “What about the mystery?” he would implore. “Her mystery, her magic?” He worried that by filming Grace raw and intimate, this might dissolve. But the hybrid nature of Grace in all her power and beautiful guises is as mysterious and enduring as the sphinx itself.
When it came to naming the film, we searched for a title. I always liked Bloodlight – a Jamaican musicians’ term for the red recording light in the studio — but it needed a second word, Bloodlight and… Late at night, I called Grace for her thoughts. “Bami!” she said. “It’s the Jamaican bread I ate as a child, and it sounds funny, and that’s important, too.” Bloodlight and Bami. Art and life.
“Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” will be in cinemas from October 27.
See some of her most iconic looks below…