By: Julian Towers
Grace Jones didn’t need to make timeless art to be a timeless artist. Across the kitschy extremes of dance music, High-Fashion, and 80s action movies, she wielded her towering physique like pure iconography, making epochal poses that transcended their dumpy origins. It was the confidence to simply inhabit her form— with gusto and ferocity— that helped her live long as an international cult figure, supported at each new turn by a loud, loyal gay audience. Frankly, it seems wrong that she’s only just now receiving documentary treatment for the first time, courtesy of Sophie Fiennes’s wonderful Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami. So before it opens at the Gene Siskel Center on Friday, we thought we’d highlight three essential starting points in her body of work.
NIGHTCLUBBING — 1981
Disco and Grace Jones forever parted ways in 1980. Sensing the tides of culture and good taste were turning, the erstwhile chanteuse decamped to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to record three albums of zeitgeist rocking New Wave. Nightclubbing, the second and most iconic of these records (thank the slick art-deco suit she rocks on the cover), is Jones’s masterpiece, and it sounds nothing like its title. Far from the throbbing, rigid sounds of club music, the record’s more like a day at the spa — a sinuous wash of reggae inflected warmth. Elastic baselines and shake-headed drum beats come courtesy of rhythm section gods Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare (in the gig that earned them their tenure with Bob Dylan), and their loose ambience provides Jones with space to do what she does best: inhabit, reinventing herself as different characters track-to-track. The post-punk rocker of “Demolition Man,” the spoken-word voodoo queen of “Walking in The Rain,” and in “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)”, the album’s most enduring song, she’s simply a frightened woman, brutally alone
Conan the Destroyer— 1984
Grace Jones was never in good movies; her new documentary is, by quite a wide margin, her best. The prospect of the worst Grace Jones film is therefore almost tempting—as though only a context of the purest shit could truly isolate her greatness. Enter, Conan the Destroyer, certainly nobody’s favorite of the two movies Arnold Schwarzenegger released in 1984 (hint, he wears sunglasses in the other one… and is a robot). This depressingly perfunctory sequel is dim, dull, and lifeless; its’ roving band of heroes perpetually weary, seemingly not from their demanding journey through frozen castles, underground lairs, and inhospitable deserts, but from the dumbass movie they’re being paid to act in. That is, except Jones. As a tribal warrior recruited by Conan, she’s introduced chained to a boulder, handily fending off any dude who’d use this as an opportunity to take her down. A scene that’s essentially expressive of her performance without, as Jones ignores the dehabilitating handicap of even being in this movie and carries on as though it were Star Wars. The big ass wooden pole she totes throughout is probably as iconic as any wooden pole could hope to be.
SLAVE TO THE RHYTHM— 1985
Probably one of the laziest, most egotistical albums of all time, Slave to the Rhythm is pretty much pure flex from a woman who knew she was the shit. The title track and lead single, so brilliant that even Peter Gabriel had to rip it off (listen to “Sledgehammer” a couple more times), was also so lucrative Jones and her team decided it would be the only actual song on the album. The seven other tracks are remixes, shuffling and redistributing all 16 lines of actual lyrics (16!) over any soundscapes producer Trevor Horn had lying left over from his work on Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome (get ready to hear “Never stop the action/Keep it up, keep it up” about 8 zillion times). It’s arguably more his album than her’s. Horn mans an army of stomping industrial drums and bombastic keyboard slides, and many tracks go Grace-less for minutes at a time while he plays with them. But Slave to the Rhythm’s other big trick was that it was the world’s first “autobiography album,” slicing up a hilariously sycophantic interview with Jones throughout the running time (“now obviously you’re in the bond movie”). The longest track does without Jone’s entirely, as Ian Macshane reads from boyfriend/Svengali Jean Paul Gaude’s memoir. Most tellingly, he reflects on his “ deliberate decision to mythologize Grace Jones.” It might be said that Slave to the Rhythm does the same, as Jones sits back with her feet up and watches. It’s kinda awesome.