‘I’m still in the present’: Grace Jones on her enduring legacy of style

TORONTO — Grace Jones is a style icon, a Hollywood actress and a live performer — but her long list of accomplishments haven’t softened her ambition.

At 70 years old, Jones could have easily retired from the entertainment world, but as the new documentary “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” proves, her heart’s still in building her reputation as pop culture chameleon.

It’s a considerable feat for someone who’s spent decades splashed across countless magazine covers and playing a James Bond henchwoman. She’s also a disco diva who spent an era linked to the dance floors of New York’s iconic Studio 54.

While Jones is an enigma of sorts, director Sophie Fiennes tries to chisel away some of the mystery with her fly-on-the-wall documentary.

In one moment, she captures the artist chasing down her longtime producers Sly & Robbie on the phone after they fail to show up for a recording session. Then she’s on the stage singing in a futuristic nun wimple. Later, she’s walking the streets of her hometown in Jamaica on a family visit.

Each moment peels back another layer of Jones to reveal the unexpected.

“We called it ‘following the yellow brick road,’” Jones says of filming the documentary, which took 12 years to complete.

“One thing leads to another, and from there it almost tells you what to do. As it morphed, it spoke to us.”

“Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” opens at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox on Friday.

Jones spoke with The Canadian Press about her place in history and opening her life to the cameras.

CP: It appears you granted director Sophie Fiennes, sister of actors Ralph and Joseph, a considerable amount of access to make her film. She previously made “Hoover Street Revival,” a 2002 documentary about your brother’s work at a church in South Central Los Angeles. Did your familiarity with her work give Fiennes access to your most vulnerable moments?

Jones: Because of our relationship and the trust I had, it was just an automatic magical connection. So I didn’t feel anything about the camera. Because we knew Sophie it was just automatic trust.

CP: “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” captures a number of your live performances — their vivid imagery and minimal staging. What you do is almost the antithesis of what we’re used to seeing in popular music these days. Most shows are now a big production with a lot of dancers.

Jones: I call those distractions from what the real thing is. For me, it’s a distraction from the voice. That means you have an insecurity that your voice can’t stand alone.

CP: The documentary will likely be a revelation for your fans, but is also certain to introduce a whole new generation to Grace Jones. There’s so many layers to you as a black woman, an artist and a performer. How do you deal with handling all of those parts?

Jones: I’m not taking that on at all because it’s useless. I’m going forward. I believe in the past, present, future, but I can’t take that on myself too. They all just have to do their homework. Nowadays I believe a lot of kids don’t want to do homework, they don’t really want to do history.

CP: You’re talking about a younger generation that’s disinterested in learning about how the past influences the future. You’ve seen that firsthand?

Jones: (Recently in Jamaica) I met this young girl, she was brilliant, top of her class, valedictorian. But they take an oath in this ‘club’ that ‘we don’t do history. We don’t want to know about any artists before we were born.’

CP: So she met you and didn’t know the story behind Grace Jones?

Jones: The next day, she was with her mom and her sister, and they said ‘You don’t know who that is?’ They went online they showed her some stuff, showing her Madonna and Lady Gaga… and said to her that I was the mother of them, in a way. So I think when she came back she was a little embarrassed.

CP: Did you offer her any advice?

Jones: I just said to her, ‘You’re very bright. Now, suppose you go ahead and you achieve all this stuff in your life. Are you going to tell me everything you did should just be forgotten? Is that what you’d like the generation to think about you? You’re too bright for that.’ I had to turn the table and show her this attitude.

CP: It’s all about perspective.

Jones: But it’s true. Kids are just now, now, now. The thing is, I’m still in the present. I just keep doing what I’m doing. I hope the inspires them to go back and say, ‘OK, what led up to this moment?’

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