Grace Jones, the imposing 1970s-’80s singer, style icon, and costar with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Conan the Destroyer” (1984) will be 70 next month, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she commands the stage in the immersive documentary “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” by Sophie Fiennes (“The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema”). Clad in a carapace-like leotard, sometimes masked or wearing outlandish headgear, clashing cymbals, or spinning a hula hoop, she rips through vintage hits like “Pull Up to the Bumper” and a breast-exposing “Warm Leatherette” with leonine, if sometimes absurd, authority.
Nonetheless, times are tough for Jones. She must personally pay to record her latest music and engages in furious phone calls with people who have reneged on promises. In one ruefully funny scene, she chastises a producer for including scantily clad dancers in a broadcast of her performing “La Vie en Rose.” “I look like a lesbian madam in a whorehouse,” she says.
Then there is the past to deal with — not her heyday, over three decades ago (Fiennes forgoes archival material for vérité footage shot over several years), but her childhood in Jamaica where she and her siblings were raised by their step-grandfather — a fanatical preacher who would brutally beat them. A visit to the rustic neighborhood where she grew up centers the film, the rosy light and lush countryside contrasting with memories of abuse as Jones explains how her ferocious stage presence is an embodiment of that terrifying patriarch and is her way of coping with the trauma.
That is one of several epiphanic moments in the film, but otherwise Fiennes doesn’t try to identify or explain people or places or memories (or even the title — you have to read the press notes to figure out that “In Jamaican patois, ‘Bloodlight’ is the red light that illuminates when an artist is recording and ‘Bami’ means bread, the substance of daily life”). Instead she follows Jones from hotels to taxis to dressing rooms, with glimpses of New York, Tokyo, Moscow, and Paris seen through windows, cutting to performances without any identification of where or when they take place.
To provide context, Fiennes relies on passing cues, and for the casual viewer it’s easy to get lost. A semi-stoned conversation recalls a funny anecdote from her early career. After a while, to those familiar with Jones’s legend, it becomes clear that she’s describing the scandalous occasion in 1981 when she slapped BBC talk show host Russell Harty for rudely ignoring her. Later Jones is submerged in a slow-motion, strobe-lit visit to a disco, where she dances with bacchic intensity. Perhaps Fiennes’s intent is to draw the viewer into the solipsistic intensity of what it is to be Grace Jones. It is a bracing experience, because she is hedonistic, exultant, funny, and fierce.
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
Directed by Sophie Fiennes. At Coolidge Corner. 115 minutes. Unrated (inadvertent nudity, drinking, language, outlandish haberdashery). In English and French, with subtitles.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org