Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami (2018)

Both the concert movie and the musician’s hagiography are difficult to pull off with any cinematic finesse. With few exceptions like Peter Strickland’s concert footage of Bjork’s Biophilia project and the bizarre tale spun by The Devil & Daniel Johnson, the musician’s documentary is usually flatly crafted, relying on the audience’s interest in the subject to meet the filmmakers halfway. The recent Grace Jones documentary Bloodlight & Bami curiously splits its time between both troubled mediums, the concert movie and the musican’s hagiography, and opens itself up to both’s follies in the process. Its concert footage is no-frills, matter-of-fact documentation of recent Grace Jones performances in Dublin, exerting only a minimal amount of artistic energy into an occasional crane shot in-between its more static edits. Its interview footage, which comprises most of the runtime, is the exact kind of meandering, low-fi/low-effort hangout energy that can sink a musician’s profile in for-fans-only tedium. Somehow, though, the movie transcends these limitations in medium and offers something that feels like a rare, unearned blessing: Grace Jones. Jones saves Bloodlight & Bami from any potential tedium by simply being a living, breathing phenomenon. The movie requires massive patience, but her mere presence makes it frequently fascinating, if not essential viewing. We are extremely lucky to have access to Grace Jones at all, in any form, something Jones herself seems to know more than anyone else in the world.

A Jamaican-born pop singer who made huge waves in the 1970s & 80s through the androgynous sexuality of her high fashion imagery just as much as through the strange tones of her post-reggae music, Jones is a long-established legend. Early in Bloodlight & Bami, Jones is swarmed by intensely dedicated fans after a performance—strangers who greedily drink in her every word & physical motion as if she were a deity. That’s not the Grace Jones this movie is about. You can glimpse her attention-commanding power in the interspersed concert sequences, where she models various exquisite headpieces & black lingerie while singing to an appreciative crowd of hundreds, like a demonic Eartha Kitt. Most of the film, however, is an effort to humanize the pop culture icon, hanging out with her between gigs, often at home with family. The high production value of the concert footage is clashed with the serene calm of Jones’s return trips to Jamaica, framed in a cheap digital haze. The conversations captured in this off-stage downtime range from small talk with strangers & petty disputes with session musicians to deeply painful reminiscing of childhood abuse & long-dead romances. There’s no historical hagiography of Grace Jones’s top-of-the-pop-world heyday, only a document of her current art as a stage performer & her current relationships with an inner circle who knew her as a person, not an avant-garde deity. The movie is in no rush to impress you with the enormity of Jones’s achievements or legacy, relying instead on her natural charisma to hold your attention as the digicam footage gets distracted by images as inconsequential as a car mirror ornament or a flashing streetlight. It’s a gamble that takes for granted that audiences’ minds won’t wander off in its long moments of quiet, one that mostly pays off.

As entertaining as her music can be, Grace Jones is most distinctly impressive as a visual artist & a performer. It seems counterintuitive, then, to strip her of all her visual gloss in a documentary that often looks like it was filmed on a flip-phone. Jones is, to this day, still a phenomenal performer, even shown hula hooping in high heels while singing a vocal-intensive stage number, never missing a beat. Director Sophie Fiennes also has an early credit as an art department contributor for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, one of the most exquisitely staged films I can name, so it’s presumable her eye for visual craft is at least somewhat comparable to Jones’s. The aggressively low-fi, meandering aesthetic that guides most of Bloodlight & Bami must be understood as a deliberate artistic choice. Jones is stripped of the gorgeous lighting & costuming she wears like armor onstage (the headpieces are so extravagant that there’s a “hats by” credit included in the opening title cards) to demonstrate how naturally fascinating & culturally essential she remains without them. Even when she’s not making bawdy sex jokes about the mussels she’s eating for dinner or explaining to an ex-lover why all men should be penetrated (at least once), she naturally commands attention. There’s a fierce, no-bullshit way she carries herself that makes her come across like an undeniable force of Nature, even when she’s just waiting around in a recording studio for stubbornly lackadaisical musicians to arrive or lightly bickering with her mother. Even including the more immediately arresting concert footage, the most fascinating sequence of Bloodlight & Bami is a lengthy montage where Grace Jones applies her makeup in the hours leading up to a performance, oblivious to the world outside her mirror. She compels the eye.

Late in the film, Jones boasts that even without costumes or amplification or even lights, she would still be able to entertain her crowds alone, in the dark, with nothing enhancing the spectacle of her being. Bloodlight & Bami is proof of the veracity of that claim. If you want a document of Grace Jones the otherworldly icon, the 1982 concert film Grace Jones: A One Man Show is likely much more useful than the stripped down, low-fi hangout rhythms of Bloodlight & Bami. This movie is more proof that she does not need production spectacle to make her fascinating & idiosyncratic. Those qualities come to Grace Jones naturally and we should be grateful to be blessed with her existence in any form we can get it. Even when presented in the most plain, genre-burdened version of the musician’s documentary imaginable, one where she’s shown in as pedestrian of a light as possible, Grace Jones still feels like a divine gift we do not deserve.

-Brandon Ledet

Kraftwerk 3-D and the Modern Concert as Cinema

At the time I’m writing this it’s been over a week since I’ve seen a proper movie, which is likely the longest stretch I’ve gone without watching one in at least two years. Thanks to the ever-expanding grey area of what does & does not qualify as cinema, however, I feel like that itch is being scratched elsewhere, with a surprising amount of that content relating to pop music. For instance, long form music videos like Beyoncé’s Lemonade or our former Movie of the Month Girl Walk //All Day and prestige television shows like Baz Luhrmann’s recent chaotic mess of a hip-hop disco musical The Get Down all feel cinematic without being what’s traditionally considered cinema. Gallons of ink have already been spilled about how television is becoming more like film & vice versa (in the form of never-ending franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe),but what’s been of particular interest to me lately is how music videos & live concerts have been doing the same. This might explain why while attending a 3-D Kraftwerk concert in New Orleans last Friday I found myself (between spaced out, gin & soda fueled dancing) asking “Is this cinema?” I don’t know if it was because I hadn’t watched a film in days & was desperate to tap myself into that headspace, but I wound up deciding that yes, it was. And it was one of the best movies I had seen all year.

If you’re wondering, like I was before I reached the Orpheum that Friday, exactly what a “3-D concert” is (besides watching three-dimensional musicians perform in a three-dimensional space), Kraftwerk basically performed in front of a stage-sized screen that displayed a moving image to correspond with each song, not unlike a live music video. These images were made to look 3-D through cardboard glasses specifically printed for the show & distributed at the entrance. Now, watching a screen at a live event isn’t all that novel for a 2010s concert experience. In fact, it’s almost become standard. Besides attendees watching acts through their view-blocking, media-capturing smartphones, bands often use projections & display screens to enhance the live music experience. From metal bands doing living room sets in front of projections of silent horror relics to gigantic crowd music festivals using jumbotrons to reach the folk miles form the stage, we’ve all witnessed 2-D visual media incorporated as part of the live concert experience. The concept goes back pretty far down the history of rock n’ roll too, touching on the rudimentary light shows of 60s psychedelia & the multimedia assault on the senses of acts like The Butthole Surfers. There’s something different about the way Kraftwerk is crafting their live experience that makes it more of a recognizably cinematic endeavor, however, and that difference has a lot to do with the immersion & the gimmickry of the 3-D experience.

When trying to conjure the ways live music is gradually becoming more cinematic the first thing that might come to mind is the live performance of movie scores for public screenings. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood performed live versions of his There Will Be Blood score for recent events. Prog rock legends Goblin embarked on an entire international tour where they performed their killer score for Dario Argento’s Suspiria along with screenings of the movie. Local musician Hellen Gillet recently performed a live score for Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis at an outdoor screening outside the US Mint in the French Quarter. These examples of cinema seeping into the live music experience are exciting, but they’re also more traditional than they might initially appear. Think back to the early days of silent cinema where soundtracks would be performed by a live, in-house pianist. Updating that dynamic for a pop music context is exciting, but it’s not necessarily the innovation of a homogenous live music & cinema blend that acts like Kraftwerk have been bringing to concert venues.

What’s fascinating to me lately is the film-concert hybrid, a cinematic experience specifically designed to be engaged with as a live musical act. The multimedia performances of Björk’s Biophilia & Laurie Anderson’s United States I-IV were brave steps in that direction, but the first live music cinema experience I can remember attending myself was Dan Deacon’s collaboration with visual artist Jimmy Joe Roche. Live performances of their visual album, the blisteringly psychedelic Ultimate Reality, were singularly overwhelming experiences. Two live drummers set up on opposite sides of the stage in front of an oversized projector screen. They played mechanically in sync over a recording of Deacon’s trademark synth assault, accompanied by a mid-length feature film collage of bright, kaleidoscopic imagery lifted from various Arnold Schwarzenegger films. Ultimate Reality pushes its concert-cinema hybrid even a step further by marrying its aural & visual assault with a loose narrative in which all of Arnold’s movies, from Total Recall to Junior, are melted into an incomprehensible mess of a storyline that doesn’t exactly resemble the story structure of even the loosest, most Lynchian of film narratives or the vibe-driven, movement-based structure of a live concert. Ultimate Reality occupies a strange gray area between those two extremes, the same cinematic live music territory I experienced while watching Kraftwerk 3-D.

Kraftwerk is a seminal band, having played the role of innovator for nearly half a century. Listening to them perform live you can detect the early beginnings of pop music genres as varied as hip-hop, techno, industrial, and (duh) new wave lurking in the sparse, cold sounds of their digital meditations. They marry this slow, synth-soaked hypnosis, each song stretching on for dozens of minutes at a time, with a stark, minimalist, stage show. All four members of the band are centered at their own synthesizer podiums, remaining stoically still as they mix their digital soundscapes into a cohesive whole. It took me almost two songs into their set to even realize that the vocals were being provided live by one of the members. Everything felt so fixed & so clinical. Behind those four synth-commanding demigods stands a gigantic projector screen, which of course displays 3-D imagery related to each song performed. The imagery can range from archival footage of supermodels of the 1950s (during my personal favorite Kraftwerk tune “Das Model”) to crude digital renderings of a pixelated car on the highway (during the song “Autobahn”), an intentionally outdated aesthetic that recalls the look of certain Tim & Eric segments or, perhaps more appropriately, the music video project that accompanied the Death Grips album Government Plates. The rudimentary, elemental nature of these images matched the sparse genre seedlings of Kraftwerk’s music and transported their audience into a cinematic headspace that’s foreign to most concert experiences, even ones aided by higher tech on their display screens.

Unlike Ultimate Reality, 3-D Kraftwerk didn’t form its individual vignettes into a larger narrative whole. Instead, each music video experience was allowed to exist as its own separate meditation, functioning almost like a horror anthology, with the concert hall itself standing in as a wraparound segment. One song dove into the ever-present threat of nuclear war. One meditated on the machine-like efficiency of athletes who participate in the Tour de France. One provided a visualization of the digital landscape where the band’s Tron-like costumes might be considered high fashion. A particularly playful rendition of “We are Robots” had the band replaced onstage with mannequins propped up behind their synth podiums & projected in 3-D behind them. That last moment in particular pointed to the absurdity of paying to see a band so rooted in the artistry of music studio production perform “live” in the first place. The very idea of “a 3-D concert” is an exceedingly ridiculous concept on its own and the band never shied away from pointing to that absurdity. Instead of pursuing a more kinetic stage show, they turned their songs into a collection of short films with live music accompaniment, each devolving into long form meditations on concepts like international travel & “computer love”. The result felt a lot like watching a movie. Instead of feeling comradery with the band, like being within arms’ reach at a $5 punk show, you feel as if you’re watching a collection of mannequins stand before a silver screen; it’s distancing, but it’s also dazzling.

3-D technology has always been a William Castle-type gimmick meant to sell extra movie tickets to audiences looking for a novel & immersive cinematic experience. It was a perfect choice for Kraftwerk to draw an audience in with that cinema-specific gimmick because their live show already feels so similar to watching a movie in the first place. As the screen-heavy multimedia approach to the live concert becomes increasingly cinematic it’ll be interesting to see where other bands can take the basic idea explored by 3-D Kraftwerk, Dan Deacon, and others into new, more narrative territories. It’s not a perfect fit for every musical act, but in a struggling industry suffering long-term declines in album sales the idea of live music cinema could be a great potential moneymaker for bands more prone to in-the-studio tinkering than live rock n’ roll antics. More importantly, though, it could lead to innovative modes of great, cinematic art, the next evolution in both the movie going & live music experiences as we know them. It’s only appropriate that Kraftwerk would be one of the acts on the forefront of that innovation, as they have been with so many other musical advancements since the late 1960s.

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-Brandon Ledet

ABBA: The Movie (1977)

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In our recent conversation about the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music, I asked Britnee if it’s possible to make a legitimately-great disco musical or if the two genres were fundamentally irreconcilable. Britnee answered with a resounding “Yes!” but I remained somewhat unconvinced. The repetition inherent to disco makes a musical film’s plot feel like its idling in a way that a more narrative-intense music genre wouldn’t. Can’t Stop the Music’s musical numbers were strange Village People music video-type interjections that barely interacted with the film’s completely unnecessary plot involving Steve Guttenberg’s DJ career and some out-of-place heterosexual shenanigans. The movie’s disco & plot mixed just about as cohesively as oil & water.

ABBA: The Musical brilliantly sidesteps the problem by not even attempting to mix its plot with its disco. The movie does tell a half-assed story of about country music DJ assigned to interview the Swedish pop group on their Australian tour, but it’s entirely inconsequential. Early conversations between the DJ and his station manager are periodically interrupted with crowds chanting “We want ABBA!”, voicing exactly what the audience is thinking. The movie delivers the goods early on, full live performances of the band’s hit songs running almost continuously from about ten minutes in. ABBA: The Musical is essentially a concert film in disguise, the Australian DJ’s story arc serving mostly as filler. Between the live performances, he conducts street interviews with fans, reads about the group member’s individual personalities in magazines, and struggles to make his way backstage at their concerts. Where Can’t Stop the Music made the band it was marketing second to its superficial plot, ABBA: The Movie is smart to do the exact opposite, always putting the band first & the fiction second.

Honestly, Can’t Stop the Music is a much more interesting film (especially in its choice to obscure both its subject’s homosexuality and the disco scene’s rampant drug use), but ABBA: The Movie isn’t without its own strange subtext. There are some questionable inclusions in the film’s attempt to push its product. If they were trying to make the group seem hip to kids, it may not have been the best idea to include street interviews where parents praise the music as “nice & clean”. In direct contradiction, there’s a lot made of singer Agnetha Faltskog’s award-winning ass, which is talked about & filmed so much it’s easy to think of her as the Nikki Minaj of her time. My favorite oddball choice is the endless parade of ABBA merchandise (hats, socks, buttons, beer mugs, picture books, etc.) on display while the group sings the anti-capitalist anthem “Money Money Money.” Then there’s an early press conference in which ABBA complains about the grueling ordeal of touring in a movie that glorifies their life on the road. For the most part, though, the film really does live up to the parental-friendly “nice & clean” image the band intentionally cultivated, making little attempt to mine anything under the surface.

There’s not much going on here besides the idea that ABBA is awesome and people who paid to watch their movie mostly just want to watch them play their music. It’s a honest concept I can get behind. Although the film may lack the more bizarre connotations of Can’t Stop the Music, it’s very easy to get swept up in its straightforward “ABBA is awesome!” sentiment when the group is performing killer pop tunes like “Waterloo”, “S.O.S.”, “Mamma Mia” and, of course, “Dancing Queen”. It’s downright fascinating how thick the 70s cheese is here, considering it was released the same year punk starting poking its head out from dive bars and terrified parents across the world. It’s a flawed, corny film, but it’s one that delivers the product it promises. Of course the Australian country music DJ asides are mostly inconsequential, but they don’t overpower the band the same way the plot did in Can’t Stop the Music and they also help to break up the more laborious task a full-on concert movie from the group would’ve presented. All I really wanted from an ABBA movie was some great ABBA musical performances, which it delivered in abundance.

-Brandon Ledet

Björk: Biophilia Live (2014)

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“I do believe motion pictures are the significant art form of our time. And I think the main reason is, they’re an art form of movement, as opposed to static art forms of previous times. But another reason that they’re the preeminent art form is they’re part art and part business. They are a compromised art form, and we live in a somewhat compromised time. And I believe to be successful over the long run, unless you’re a Federico Fellini or an Ingmar Bergman or a true genius in filmmaking, you have to understand that you’re working in both an art and a business.” – Roger Corman

The concert movie is a disadvantaged art form, as it has a lot to prove out the gate to justify its place among other films. While documentaries & fictional films can pretend not to be what Roger Corman would call a “compromised” artistic commodity, the concert film is always conspicuously selling a product: the band or artist that’s performing. The blurred line between short film & advertisement is acceptable in a music video, because they’re generally free to access and easy to consume. A full-length concert film on the other hand, especially one with a theatrical release, has a much steeper hill to climb. It’s asking you to pay admittance to a long-form promotion, spectacle or not. This is an especially hard sell for someone that’s not already a dedicated fan of the product on display.

Although some concert films make no attempt to hide their commercial aspirations or reach an audience outside of their fan base (last year’s One Direction: Where We Are is a recent high-profile example), others bend over backwards to prove themselves worthy to be discussed among their less-scrutinized film peers. Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense proves itself a genre benchmark through its careful consideration of how the band’s literal stage presence affects its cinematic image.  Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars uses the silver screen to breathe life into the fictional character of the film’s title. The Band’s The Last Waltz uses some of that good old Scorsese grit to give the account of its “farewell concert” the feeling of an intimate late-night jam session shared between a few dozen (exceptionally talented) friends. I don’t mean to pick on the One Direction concert movie. The group has a wide enough fan-base that the demand for a no frills concert movie is loud enough on its own to justify Where We Are’s existence. I’m just trying to distinguish why Bjork’s Biophilia Live, a movie in the same distinctly commercial-minded genre, deserves to be considered among the best films of 2014.

Biophilia Live begins with the voice of famed naturalist David Attenborough making wild, unrealistic declarations over breathtaking nature footage befitting the TV series Planet Earth. Attenborough urges the audience to “forget the size of the human body. Remember that you are a gateway between the universal and the microscopic, the unseen forces that stir the depths of your innermost being and Nature, who embraces you and all there is.” He goes on to claim that “we are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovation.” Holy shit. That’s quite an ambitious opener. The film itself nearly delivers on this majestic promise, finding a unique visual language that combines “nature, music, and technology” into one cohesive whole.

This union of “nature, music and technology” is accomplished through a layered visual collage that matches the on-stage aspects of the concert being filmed to the beautiful nature footage & pixelated CGI that swirls around and above it. During the opening song “Thunderbolt” Björk appears in the Earth’s stormy atmosphere, her backing band’s synths (and a specially rigged Tesla coil) seemingly controlling the lightning that illuminates the air around her. The imagery then shifts from the earthly to the celestial, the rhythm of the music correlating to the phases of the moon and the glacially shifting lights of stars and galaxies. The focus then shrinks from the heavenly to the microscopic: Fantastic Voyage-style close-ups of blood moving through veins fade to pixelated bacteria attaching to strands of DNA before the images finally devolve into distorted television color bars & computer monitor static. My favorite use of the nature footage arrives during this microcosmic section when crystals form over the image of Björk performing the song “Crystalline”, only to disappear in a blink to match the song’s violent rhythms. “Crystalline”‘s “internal nebula” & “crystalizing galaxies” lyrical phrasing also feels like the film’s tone in a nutshell. It’s in the stranger moments like this and like when vibrant mushrooms slowly expand in the foreground, leaving the stage antics out of focus that Biophilia Live shines brightest.

These phases of the imagery are cleverly allowed to bleed into one another instead of remaining isolated, which leads to some transcendent juxtaposition: a lightning storm in outer space, the moon perched on a spinal column, crystal formations melting into prism light. Even Björk herself looks like a combination of two ostensibly separate natural phenomenons, her gigantic wig like a colorful galaxy & her asymmetrical dress like an underwater growth. Attenborough’s opening monologue defines “biophilia” as “the love for Nature in all her manifestations” and Biophilia Live tries desperately to capture all of those manifestations in one definitive catalog. Conceived as a single facet of a multi-media project alongside a studio album, music-composition computer apps, and a filmed conversation between Björk & Attenborough, the film itself is more than just a document of a single concert. It’s also an attempt to tie years of far-reaching ideas spread across various art forms into a single product, the same way it tries to tie all of Nature into a single entity. What’s most impressive is that the film succeeds.

Although Björk exhibited creative control through all aspects of the production, part of the film’s success is surely due to the involvement of British director Peter Strickland. Strickland had already established his skills in visually displaying reverence for sound in his 2013 film Berberian Sound Studio, a bizarre thriller that’s just as much homage to foley artists & sound engineers as it is to old school giallo movies. There’s a lot of maddening, horrific energy in Berberian’s dissociative conflict between its imagery & its sounds. Here he & co-director Nick Fenton instead synchronize sounds to their visual equals in the style of Björk’s previous music video collaborations with Michel Gondry. The dissociation occurs instead in how the images relate to each other: how the screens interact with the stage, how distant stars relate to plankton, etc.  Through various camera movement & editing techniques Biophilia Live creates a world that’s simultaneously intimate and expansive.

The live concert format is occasionally at odds with the film’s intimacy. The crowd sometimes intrudes mid-song, breaking the reverie with premature applause. Björk is appreciative of their presence at least, punctuating the end of each song with a polite “thank you”. Of course, the film’s very existence depends on Björk’s relationship with her audience, the same way the existence of One Direction’s Where We Are depends on theirs. Without a basic appreciation for Björk’s music, it’s unlikely that that someone would enjoy a feature-length document of one of her concerts.

What makes Biophilia Live remarkable is the ambition to reach beyond pleasing fans musically. It also asks its audience to contemplate the totality of Nature and how its individual parts interact and unite into a cohesive whole. It’s a zealous, far-reaching work that deserves to be included in the conversation of the best films released in 2014 as well as the best concert films of all time.

-Brandon Ledet