Keeping up with the Jones
Our music critic talks to Irish film producer Katie Holly and British director Sophie Fiennes about the pair's latest collaboration - a new fly-on-the-way documentary about iconic singer Grace Jones
In a world of cookie-cutter pop stars, Grace Jones continues to stand apart. For more than 40 years, this striking Jamaican has enjoyed a special place in that crossroads where music, art and fashion all meet.
The deaths of uncompromising icons David Bowie and Prince last year accentuated just how few exotic, mysterious and larger-than-life figures remain in this Instagram and Snapchat age of oversharing. But, while she may now be in her 70th year, Jones continues to push the boundaries and light the way for a whole slew of up-and-coming musicians, artists and fashion designers.
That's certainly evident in a new feature-length, fly-on-the-wall documentary, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami. The title, incidentally, is derived from the Jamaican slang for the red light in a recording studio and a local type of flatbread.
Directed by Sophie Fiennes, it not only offers beautifully shot footage from her live performances but lets us see the real Grace behind all those elaborate hats (designed, the credits tell us, by the world-famous milliner, Galway native Philip Treacy).
Or, at least, it attempts to. While Jones opens up about her childhood, family and formative influences, she remains somewhat unknowable. While that will disappoint some viewers, it's strangely comforting to see that a select band of stars manage to retain something of the otherworldly about them no matter how brightly the spotlight shines on them.
In concert, she's a commanding figure - no surprise to those who've seen her in action. She played Dublin's Olympia in September, and the gig was filmed for the documentary. And while the music remains on the challenging end of the pop spectrum, her visual aesthetic is never less than sensational. With the exception of Bowie and Kate Bush, few have managed to make their live performance so thrillingly theatrical.
Fiennes first got to know her in 2002, when Jones attended a screening of a documentary the director had made on her brother, the preacher Bishop Noel Jones.
"Not only was she very enthusiastic about it, but she initiated the idea for the documentary herself," Fiennes tells me. "And she was happy not just to be filmed in the studio and in concert, but in the course of her day-to-day life as well.
"She loves to collaborate and has done that for her entire career, and when it came to this film, she gave me her trust. She allowed the cameras in and left me in control of the finished film."
The film's Irish producer, Katie Holly, has been involved in the making of the documentary for several years. Having been introduced to Fiennes at the Cannes Film Festival, she went on to produce the English woman's next documentary, The Pervert's Guide to Ideology - a quirky look at cinema through the worldview of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. When Fiennes mentioned the Grace Jones project to her, she didn't need to be convinced.
"I first saw Grace perform at Electric Picnic [in 2008] and was transfixed by her show, and then I saw her in concert a few years later in Spain. There's no one quite like her and she has followed her own path for decades."
Grace Jones first emerged in 1977 with the Portfolio album and its big-selling lead single, 'La Vie En Rose', a superb bossa nova reworking of the Édith Piaf standard. It would be the first of six albums she released over the next five years including her 1981 masterwork Nightclubbing.
At the height of her fame, she was celebrated for her diva-like behaviour, which included an argument with the BBC TV presenter Russell Harty live on air. The hapless Harty - who had earned the wrath of the Sex Pistols some years before - found himself being slapped by the indignant Jones.
"She is her own woman," Fiennes says, "and she is not somebody who feels they have to kowtow to others. In my research into Grace, I read something by [US academic] Francesca Royster, in which she talked about an appreciation for Grace's capacity to be rude. But what it is, is her standing up for herself."
Fiennes comes from a family steeped in the arts and entertainment business. Her brothers Ralph and Joseph are respected actors, famed for Schindler's List and Shakespeare in Love respectively. Her sister Martha is a feature-film director and another sibling, Magnus, is a composer and record producer.
And yet it was from the only sibling who is not involved in the arts - Jacob - that she first became aware of the music of Grace Jones. "He had her [compilation] album, Island Life [released in 1985], and it has the most arresting cover artwork. You look at it and think, 'Who is this extraordinary woman?'"
Holly began her career working for Treasure Productions before setting up her own business, Blinder Films, in 2005. She's barely looked back since her first film, One Hundred Mornings, and its co-director, Conor Horgan, made the acclaimed documentary on Rory 'Panti' O'Neill, The Queen of Ireland, which Holly produced.
More recently she's been a producer on the glitzy, but critically unloved RTÉ drama Striking Out, and has several other projects in the pipeline. One of them is Vita and Virginia, which looks at the love affair between the socialite Vita Sackville-West and the literary heavyweight Virginia Woolf, and stars Gemma Arterton and Isabella Rossellini.
She points out that the last three projects she has worked on have all been directed by women, and Fiennes notes that Jones herself wanted a movie of her life to be made by a female, too. The industry is changing, both feel, and more woman will be involved in directing and production.
They also both believe that the scandalous fall from grace of the predatory super-producer Harvey Weinstein may accelerate that transition.
"At the moment there aren't nearly enough women making films," Fiennes says. "And that's certainly the case in feature films. Anything that makes women feel more comfortable in this business is a good thing."
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is at the Irish Film Institute, Dublin, from Friday.
There is a special live event, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami - Live with Friends, in selected cinemas on Wednesday