The Normal classic “Warm Leatherette” from 1978 made it onto the mixtapes of many listeners of “The Rock of the Eighties” on KROQ. How could it not? Those siren-like instrumentals. Those monotone vocals by Daniel Miller. Those ultra-dark lyrics.
A tear of petrol
Is in your eye.
Quick, let’s make love
Before we die.
“Warm Leatherette” was inspired by J.G. Ballard’s controversial 1973 novel Crash, which also inspired David Cronenberg’s 1996 film of the same name and is not to be confused with Paul Haggis’ 2004 Academy Award winner.
Miller sought to encapsulate Ballard’s tome into a two-and-a-half-minute song, and what he produced not only inspired those of us pirating the vinyl single onto 8-tracks and these newfangled things called “cassette tapes,” but it also inspired a 5-foot-9 Amazon.
Born in Spanish Town, St. Catherine, Jamaica, Grace Jones had been a runway model in New York. Her androgynous look made her perfect for the Studio 54 disco scene, or at least that’s how Island Records saw it. Their collaboration led to this particular cassette owner burning her 1980 album Warm Leatherette, which of course included her stinging version of the title song.
I would fetch it and spin it while I am writing this were I sure it was still in my possession as opposed to some random album trader’s. I can report with complete confidence that I really dug her “Warm Leatherette,” which gets a fresh, jazzy, cymbals-smashing take in the documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, which opened April 20 at Edwards University in Irvine and continues with a weeklong engagement at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana starting Friday.
The at times sad, at times invigorating, at all times splendid documentary is directed by Sophie Fiennes, who is the sister of actors Ralph and Joseph. More important, she parlayed the knowledge she gleaned from managing the Michael Clark dance company into the documentary Show and Tell, which is about Les Ballet C. de la B.’s performance of VSPRS. But Fiennes is no one-plié pony, demonstrating an interest in a wide variety of subjects, starting with 2002’s Hoover Street Revival, which looked at the spiritual heart of South Central Los Angeles, Greater Bethany Community Church.
Fiennes followed that up in 2006 with The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which was written and presented by philosopher and film analyst Slavoj Žižek. In 2010 came Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, which examined German artist Anselm Kiefer. That was followed two years later by The Pervert’s Guide to Philosophy, which placed Žižek inside scenes from Taxi Driver, Full Metal Jacket and The Sound of Music. Two short films were Fiennes’ projects before Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, which is reported to have taken five years to make.
In Jamaican patois, ‘bloodlight’ is the red light that illuminates when an artist is recording and ‘bami’ is bread, the substance of daily life. Fiennes’ film follows Jones back to her homeland, but we never get a linear story about her birth, upbringing, relocation (or escape), modeling career, music career, etc., etc. That suits the subject just fine because the filmmaker instead gives us what Jones is: a work of art. That applies not only to her grueling work as a singer, but also to her very self. She is a canvas that she constantly erases and redoes, as if she is applying fire-engine-red gloss to her full lips.
A sidebar, your honor: I looked it up, and Grace Jones is 69 years old. Based on this movie, a hotter 69-year-old you will never see. Keep in mind that she appears onscreen without makeup or applying some with tiny mirrors in moving vehicles or in full war-paint mode. Any which way Fiennes shows her, she is remarkably attractive for a human being of any age. No wonder we can’t take our eyes off her.
What we see is Jones shapeshifting as a performer, mother, businesswoman, daughter, former lover and lover of life. We hear her speaking French, Spanish, Jamaican and English with both British and American accents. She can exude supreme confidence onstage, jitters backstage, and a return to her childhood self when around her siblings and elders, who commiserate about the good ol’ scary days. But she is fierce when it comes to her art. Jones actually says at one point that she is not exorcising her own demons, but rather those of “Mas P,” her grandmother’s second husband and a Christian zealot who regularly beat Grace before she fled Jamaica at 13 to reunite with her parents in upstate New York.
There are certain points in the film during which critics of her might apply the “diva” tag, but I would urge them to imagine a man who is making the same gripes about videographers who put you in the center of a tacky routine, producers who fail to cover all the days for a hotel room they booked you into and musicians who do not show up as promised during studio time the artist paid for. Based on what Fiennes shows, Jones comes off unreasonably reasonable in situations that obviously piss her off.
She is, of course, operating in a post-record-company world in which it is up to the artist to take care of things that had been handled for her in years past. Based on her shows, she is doing just fine. That she’s pulling it off this late in life despite a fucked-up upbringing makes it all the more inspiring.
Fiennes bravely seizes the incredible access to Jones on her globe-trotting travels, but I would argue the best parts of the movie are the concert scenes, which have the singer making more costume changes than Cher. Besides “Warm Leatherette,” we are treated to performances of “Slave to the Rhythm” (from her 1985 album of the same name), “Pull Up to the Bumper” (from ’81’s Nightclubbing), “La Vie en Rose” (’77’s Portfolio), and covers of the 1779 Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” and Roxy Music’s “Love Is the Drug.”
Jones’ hilarious laments about New York and hearty partying not being the same now as they were at the height of the Studio 54 nights alongside Warhol really resonated with this lukewarm pleatherette who, truth be told, was a card-carrying member of the Disco Sucks Society. Nevertheless, I always loved Grace Jones, even when she was scaring the hell out of me in the Bond film A View to a Kill. It warms my heart to know she is still out there, fighting the good fight in headdresses that cover her eyes.
One fan is heard in the movie asking Jones when she will appear in another movie. She answers that she should be the one making the next one. To God’s ear, my dear.
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami at the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; thefridacinema.org. Fri., 2:30, 5, 7:30 & 10 p.m.; Sat., 1 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30, 7 & 9:30 p.m.; Mon.-Thurs., May 3, 2, 7 & 9:30 p.m. $7-$10.