The 2019 Concert Films that Saved Me a Ticket to Jazz Fest

We live only a few blocks away from the New Orleans Fairgrounds where the Jazz & Heritage Festival is staged every year. This means the festival is automatically a part of our annual social calendar, if not only because our house effectively becomes a cab stand for the occasion (which makes for some excellent front porch people-watching, I tell you what). In that way, we’re already a part of the Jazz Fest experience every day of the two-week ritual no matter what, but we also usually manage to attend at least a couple performances at the festival each year in-person for good measure. 2019 is the first year since we purchased a house in the Jaz Fest orbit that we weren’t able to actually attend the fest on-the-grounds – due to a lack of funds, comped tickets, and free time. We still got in some good people-watching on the periphery of the festivities, but the closest we got to attending a performance was hearing a voice just clear enough from our porch to tell that it was Alanis Morrissette’s but not clear enough to actually tell what she was singing. Thanks to a couple well-timed concert film releases over the past few weeks, however, I was more or less able to achieve the general Jazz Fest experience in the air-conditioned darkness of my living room & a nearby movie theater. It may not have been quite as pure of a concert-going experience as witnessing a Jazz Fest performance in person, but at least it saved me from my annual Jazz Fest sunburn – a ritual I was happy to skip.

For the outdoor, mainstage Jazz Fest experience, the recent Netflix release of the Beyoncé concert documentary Homecoming was extremely well-timed. Documenting her two instantly historic performances at last year’s Coachella, the film’s obviously imbued with a larger stage production, a harsher climate, and more massively overpacked crowds than anything you’ll ever experience on the Fairgrounds. Still, it took me back to the Hell of watching Elton John serenade an oversized crowd of dehydrated bullies a few festivals ago – making me grateful that Beyoncé documented this spectacle for posterity so that those of us without the money or stamina required for Coachella can enjoy it into perpetuity. A major departure from the diary-like intimacy of Lemonade, Homecoming finds Queen Bey entertaining her masses in grand spectacle – putting on one of the all-time great stage shows in the medium of pop music. Like Jazz Fest at its best, the project is also deliberate in its explicit preservation & exultation of black culture. Besides presenting a bewildering two-hour catalog of Beyoncé classics with mesmeric precision in craft, the film also functions as a feature-length love letter to Historically Black Colleges and Universities – particularly in its drumline & steppers percussions that accent the songs throughout. And, because HBCUs are specifically a Southern black tradition, the film’s sensibilities often incorporate a distinct New Orleans Flavor in their creative DNA. The marching band brass, DJ Jubilee bounce beats, Big Freeida vocal sample, and in-the-wild wild Solange sighting all felt at home to New Orleans more so than California, where it was actually staged.

Personally, I find the in-the-sun concert experience of Jazz Fest’s main stages a little overwhelming, even with only a fraction of the Beychella crowd in attendance. As a result, I often find myself hiding out from the major acts in the smaller tent venues, where the Sun can’t find me. The Gospel Tent is a required stop every year to complete the Jazz Fest ritual, then, an experience I was able to approximate in a movie theater thanks to the recent Aretha Franklin concert doc Amazing Grace. Originally filmed for television in 1972, Amazing Grace was delayed from release for decades – reportedly due to technical difficulties regarding its sync-sound editing, but mostly just so it could arrive at a nearby AMC at the exact year I missed my annual pilgrimage to the Gospel Tent. Filmed over two nights in a Los Angeles Baptist church, Amazing Grace is a raw, emotionally powerful showcase for Franklin’s soul-rattling vocals – which tear through a catalog of Gospel standards with a divine fury. Franklin isn’t offered the same stage show spectacle or auteurist control Beyoncé commands in Homecoming here, but the sweaty intimacy of being locked in a church with her incredible voice for two nights is almost enough to make you weep – even with the remove of a half-century and a movie screen. It’s the essence of the Gospel Tent amplified to thunderous effect. Mick Jagger even showed his face in the crowd among the attendees, which was more of the Stones than who showed up for this year’s Jazz Fest, even though they were initially the biggest act booked.

There are certainly more substantial comparisons to be made between Homecoming & Amazing Grace than how they can evoke a full music festival experience in tandem. These are two essential, transcendent documents of powerful black women performing at the top of their game – distinct achievements in the concert-movie medium that could inspire endless discussions of their subtext & nuance. CC & I even touched on some of these nuances ourselves in a recent podcast episode that paired the two films with Childish Gambino’s own recent Coachella-season release, Guava Island. For anyone who missed this year’s Jazz Fest like I did or anyone who just wants to let those post-Fest vibes linger a little longer, however, I do encourage you to pair these two incredible works to synthesize the general effect of physically attending the fest – without the crowds & heat.

-Brandon Ledet

Betty: They Say I’m Different (2018)

Betty Davis doesn’t owe us shit. After putting out three raw, sweaty albums of highly sexual, unapologetically political funk in the 1970s, Davis had far too little to show for her contributions to black feminist art, fashion, and music. In a famous pull-quote, her ex-husband Miles Davis described her as “Madonna before Madonna, Prince before Prince” in an effort to bolster her notoriety, but it’s an empty platitude that at best reads as too little too late. Betty is often contextualized as “Miles Davis’s wife” in her press and reduced to her contributions in changing the direction of his own fashion & art. That has got to sting, considering her acknowledgements that Miles had physically abused her in the brief time they were married. Her contemporary press was also severely critical of her art & appearance – labeling her as a disgrace to her own race & gender for exploring & exhibiting her sexuality in an aggressive manor onstage. Denigrated in the press, abused by her partner, never afforded the commercial adulation she deserved, and essentially locked out of the mainstream music industry by the white men who own it, Betty Davis eventually got fed up with us and chose to disappear. For the past few decades her closest collaborators and most adoring fans have been attempting to reach her and boost her profile, to let her know that her work is valued and to help her enjoy some of that value in back-owed monetary gain. The brisk, crowdfunded documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different (named after her most iconic album) is a major part of that effort to boost her public profile and to draw her out of her shell enough to see that she is adored & idolized. The problem is that she’s not very interested in reconciling with her public, and we have no right to pressure her into it.

This documentary has taken on the unenviable task of boosting the profile of a reclusive artist who’s been actively trying to disappear for the last few decades. It’s a well-intentioned primer in sparking wider public interest in Davis’s too-long buried funk albums, but also struggles to build a story around the very few scraps of information Davis is willing to reveal about herself. That self-conflict can make the film feel a little frustratingly thin as entertainment media, but also admirable in going out of its way to respect Davis’s privacy. You can tell Davis had substantial creative input in how her story is told here, if not only because so little of it is told at all. Most of the hard facts on display are what’s already public knowledge: her move from a childhood in Pittsburgh to an artistic life in NYC, a timeline of the few albums she managed to release while she was in the public spotlight, and press clippings exploring why she was so controversial in the context of the Civil Rights Era. Besides a few surface-level interviews with family, friends, and scholars, Davis relays the rest of the story herself through several careful removes. Her narration is delivered in first-person but written in collaboration with director Phil Cox and recorded post-production by a voice actor. She appears briefly onscreen, but always out of focus in her modest Pittsburgh apartment, back turned to the camera and to the world. The explanation of her disappearance is filtered through several layers of metaphor – allowing the imagery of perched crows, wilting flowers, and trips to Japan to substitute the gaps in her narrative she’s not willing to reveal. We have no right to ask any more of Betty as a “public” figure, but that elusiveness leaves the film stuck between wanting to tell her story her way and needing to pad out its slim 54-minute runtime with something, which becomes its biggest struggle as a standalone work.

As someone who knew too little about Betty Davis before seeing this documentary, if anything at all, I found They Say I’m Different well worthwhile as an advertisement for her few commercial releases as a funk artist. The movie is incredibly useful as a fandom primer in that way – often filling out its runtime with YouTube-style lyrics videos of her most significant songs. It’s a tactic that’s led to actual, real-world good – boosting album sales of vinyl reissues of her work that are directly putting money in the pocket of an artist who deserved that payout decades ago. On the other end, I’m sure that the most dedicated of longtime Betty Davis superfans will be ecstatic for the few isolated glimpses of her current life that she reveals here, as sparse & limited as they are. The other ways the film treads water to respect her privacy are a little less satisfying – animated pop art collages, repetitive snippets of slo-mo concert footage without sync-sound, time elapse photography of wilting flowers that feels like it was borrowed from an unrelated project, etc. Hindered by the privacy of its subject, They Say I’m Different finds itself scrambling to fill in dead air with artsy-fartsy techniques on an extremely limited budget, which often leaves it feeling like an hour-long trailer for a more complete film. For it to have done any better, though, it would have had to violate the wishes of the very subject it aims to promote & support. The way it ties one arm behind its own back as an entertainment is actually an ethical victory for it as an effort of retribution to Betty as an artist and a person. We don’t deserve a better Betty Davis documentary any more than we deserve Betty Davis herself; she doesn’t owe us any more than she’s already given. The best any modern profile of her can hope to achieve is boosting her record sales and then leaving her alone, which this one does as respectably as possible.

-Brandon Ledet

Buckjumping (2019)

Mardi Gras has an elusive spirit that’s impossible to accurately capture onscreen – whether in documentation or in fictional restaging. That’s largely because it’s a participatory culture – one that can only be reveled in, not observed. Countless local documentaries have attempted to tackle that impossible topic over the years anyway, usually through the lens of specific pockets of New Orleans Mardi Gras culture: the costume-beading traditions of Mardi Gras Indians, the pageant-drag of gay Carnival ball culture, the disruption of festivities caused by Hurricane Katrina, etc. For my money, the only doc that’s truly come close to nailing down the spirit of Mardi Gras is the classic Les Blank pic Always for Pleasure, which spreads its love & attention around an impressive portion of the city by partying along with its subjects. I mention this only to clarify that I mean it as a huge compliment when I say that the recent documentary Buckjumping feels like a 2010s update to Always for Pleasure, and a damn good one at that. Shot with at least six cinematographers over a three-year span, this low-budget doc demonstrates incredible patience in spreading its admiration, observation, and participation in New Orleans culture across the city to reach as many traditions as possible. At times, its parallels to the Les Blank classic feel deliberate, such as how it updates Always for Pleasure’s recipe tips from soul legend Irma Thomas by staging kitchen interviews with 90s bounce rapper Mia X (among interviews with other local hip-hop royalty like Mannie Fresh & DJ Jubilee). More often, their shared sensibility is more apparent in how they relate to the city and how well they capture its elusive spirit.

To be clear: Buckjumping isn’t specifically about Mardi Gras per se. Its announced subject is New Orleans dance traditions, which just naturally tend to revolve around the holiday. The ambition of that subject’s scope gradually becomes apparent as the overwhelming number of New Orleans dance traditions pile up onscreen: second-lines, jazz funerals, high school marching troupes, Mardi Gras Indians, dive bar drag acts, etc. Although it does conclude on the most modern addition to this tableau (the shaking & twerking of New Orleans bounce), it’s not so much a historical timeline of dance traditions from the city’s 300 year past as it is a participatory record of the traditions that are still thriving today. Led by head cinematographer Zac Manuel, the camerawork feels alive & alert in its hands-on engagement with its subject – filming the parade marches of dance troupes, footwork stunts of second-liners, and sweaty body-popping of bounce club hedonists with impressive intimacy & craft. There are extremes of emotions that naturally arise through that intimacy, from the soul-crushing grief of mourning to the ecstatic out-of-body experiences of second-line footwork at its most jubilant. Of course, this up-close, privileged documentation should be of interest to anyone who studies dance as an artform, but I think labeling Buckjumping simply as a dance documentary would be selling its merits short. This is a document of the elusive spirit of the city at its best, without comprising the black, queer, and radically political influences that propel that culture the way so many #NOLA commercializations of the city do. In other words, it’s an Always for Pleasure for the 2010s.

Living on Broad Street in the 7th Ward, one of my favorite Mardi Gras traditions is to hide in my living room from the first second-line after Fat Tuesday, not making it to the porch to cheer on the brass bands & rhapsodic dancers the way we usually do for the rest of the year. I’m always amazed that the local Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs still have the energy to party in that post-Carnival refractory period, the most recent one of which occurred the exact week I saw Buckumping at its second-ever screening. There are plenty of historical anecdotes & explanations of political context in this documentary that detail the evolution of our dance traditions (especially regarding their roots in slavery), but its greatest accomplishment might just be in how well it conveys the passion & compulsion that makes that bottomless dance energy possible. Maybe it takes an enthusiastic outsider to accurately capture that spirit onscreen (like Les Blank was when he filmed Always for Pleasure, Buckumping’s director Lily Keber is a young outsider relatively new to the city). More likely, this film is one of the few to accurately capture the elusive spirit of the city because it instinctively knows to participate rather than to merely observe (working with local cinematographers is likely also a plus). Either way, it’s an impressively successful, if not outright essential document of local Mardi Gras traditions – dance and beyond.

-Brandon Ledet

Cold War (2018)

There’s an expensive type of fine art photography print—one with processing names like Ilfochrome & Cibachrome—that makes black & white prints look positively silver, vibrantly metallic instead of merely devoid of color. It’s a look that’s been digitally replicated recently in comic book noir visual experiments like (the positively dreadful) Sin City & Mad Max: Fury Road’s (surprisingly worthwhile) “Black & Chrome” reissue. It’s also so old-fashioned to cinematic language that the phrase “on the silver screen” is a well-worn cliché. The most striking thing about the romantic Polish drama Cold War is the silver glow of its cinematography – so visually stunning it recalls seeing an expensive Cibachrome print in person instead of in recreation. Shot in a boxy “Academy” aspect ratio and covering nearly two decades of a tragic romance in 90 rapid-fire minutes of editing room efficiency, Cold War is undeniably impressive as a formalist object. It’s absolutely stunning as a fine art photograph – both handsome & haunting in its cold, metallic imagery. Yet, as a motion picture it’s a little too formally rigid for its own good, and staring at any still image photograph for 90 consecutive minutes is going to test your patience, no matter how well composed.

That’s not to say there’s no passion, music, or movement to the story Cold War tells. In fact, its story about two mismatched lovers whose passionate, unavoidable attraction to each other inevitably leads them to ruin is full of life & music. It’s just that its overwhelming, soul-consuming emotions are directly at odds with its art gallery formalism. A music director of a Polish folk preservation project falls in love with one of the more mysterious, magnetic performers in his cast – a young woman with a violent past. Their lust for each other is consummated quickly across class lines, but they subsequently fail to establish a normal, healthy life together as romantic partners. As an artistic musical project meant to preserve authentic Polish folk culture is coopted as nationalist propaganda under Stalinist rule, indicating the general political landscape around them, the two lovers make drastically different choices in how they relate to their shared homeland. Their mutual attraction to each other is deadly powerful, however, and they continually cross social, political, and ethical boundaries over a decade or so of dangerous cat & mouse “romance.” The problem is that the harshly segmented edits, rigidly formalist photography, and overall machine-like precision of the filmmaking does little to match or enhance their passion. As impressed as I was with the film’s storytelling efficiency, it felt like the deadly attraction at its core kept getting cut short every time it started to heat up. The result was very pretty to look at, but also frustratedly stilted in its movement.

The opening “Poland’s Got Talent” portion of Cold War, where hipster sophisticates “elevate” “peasant-style” folk art by affording it a proper stage, matched the rigid fine art photography of its formalist structure perfectly. As the wild, destructive passions of its story heat up & flame out, however, the film does little to signify that change in any noticeable way. It’s like watching a handsomely composed still photograph try to break form and become a motion picture, but it never leaves its fixed spot on the art gallery wall. This is a complaint I saw lodged much more frequently (and, to me, erroneously) at another one of this year’s Oscar frontrunners: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. If any film’s form does not match its subject, it’s Cold War, where it’s easy to be impressed with the silver screen artistry of the projected image, but difficult to get swept up in the music, movement, and emotion before they’re harshly cut short. I can’t deny the potency of the film’s visual achievements, but I wonder if they were applied to the right project.

-Brandon Ledet

Hunky Dory (2011)

There’s certainly other cinematic comfort food just as laidback & eager to please as the 2011 high school drama Hunk Dory, but rarely does it look this nice. Set in 1970s Wales, the film looks like a sunlit Polaroid dipped in honey, a perfect amber hue to capture the stoney-haze nostalgia of high school summers. This is a slow-moving hang-out picture molded after the Linklater tones established in Dazed & Confused and Slacker, but one that makes little effort to match those films in narrative complexity or character development – instead choosing to find its own distinct voice in the basic pleasures of its sights & sounds. The tendency of most 1970s nostalgia dramas would be to over-indulge in playing dress-up & recreating the era’s lingo. Hunky Dory instead busies itself by capturing mood, searching for the perfect tone of sun-damaged, over-exposed photographs so that it looks like a memory. Even its soundtrack of 1970s glam & stadium rock standards are mutated to feel like nostalgic memory & mood instead of being presented as original-recording needle drops. It’s cinematic comfort food in its deliberate embrace of narrative & thematic simplicity, but also just in the way it feels like an afternoon nap in a hammock.

Minnie Driver stars as a high school drama teacher struggling to hold her teen students’ behavior together at the tail end of a troublesome semester. She encourages them to examine & process their emotions through a class project that reimagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a jukebox musical featuring then-modern rock numbers by groups like ELO, Roxy Music, and Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars. There’s a twee tinge to the instrumentation behind those glam rock covers (recalling those early 2010s YouTube clips of grade school choirs taking on acts like Beach House & Tame Impala), but the musical performances are thoughtfully arranged & relevant to the themes of The Tempest in a remarkably rewarding way. Less remarkable is the hangout character drama that fills the languid spaces between performances: teenage runaway crises, minor romantic betrayals, Driver arguing for the academic value of artistic expression to her more narrow-minded colleagues, etc. Anything that’s lacking in those conflicts is easily paved over by its endearing “Let’s put on a show!” dramatic structure, so that when the film concludes with a glam rock, outdoors staging of The Tempest it’s all smiles & warmth. The only frustrating thing is that you can’t watch the stage play in full.

Hunky Dory introduces its characters as if you already know them from a pre-existing television show or stage play, spending way more time on the “Where are they now?” wrap-up in the end credits than in opening minutes’ exposition. It mostly gets away with it too, since its archetypal depictions of 1970s teen behavior feels instantly familiar despite the specificity of its Welsh setting. The frustrated violence, denim-on-denim make-outs, and low-key hedonism of high school brats verging on summer break are so familiar that sketching out individual character traits among this sprawling cast of fresh faces is almost unnecessary. The film easily gets by on capturing the mood of the time without weighing itself down in specifics. This is accomplished mostly through sights & sounds: honey-dipped digital photography & choral arrangements of nostalgia-inducing ear worms. Hunky Dory is marketed as being “from the producers of Billy Elliott,” which should give you an accurate expectation for what you’ll find in its unambitious, but perfectly endearing nostalgia-drama indulgences. Its greatest sin is that the full-length staging of its glam rock Tempest isn’t included as a DVD extra, since the song selection & arrangement of what’s included in the film is thoughtfully planned out enough to indicate that it could be done.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #63 of The Swampflix Podcast: ABBA Does Australia & The Dressmaker (2016)

Welcome to Episode #63 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-third episode, Brandon & Britnee investigate Australia’s unrivaled, unexplainable love for the Swedish pop group ABBA, discussing three films that reflect that national obsession. Brandon also makes Britnee watch the Australian revenge tale The Dressmaker (2016) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

There’s something really satisfying about the trial & error process of songwriting that lends itself well to feel-good cinema. The recent heartfelt indie drama Heats Beat Loud recognizes the joy of building a song from scratch, where confused & frustrated emotions can start in an incoherent haze and then be better understood & emotionally processed once solidified in song. It’s nowhere near the first movie to adopt that songwriting-as-self-therapy concept as foundational thematic ground, but it does feel like part of a recent push to build on that theme by closely following the frustrated stops & starts of the songwriting process while characters figure themselves out. 2016’s Sing Street used that conceit to craft a full-on romantic fantasy piece as a band that barely knows what they’re doing become more confident & cohesive with practice. 2017’s Band Aid is much more brutally honest about the underlying emotional devastation that dives its characters’ need for musical self-therapy, supplanting fantasy with darkly humorous observations about small-time musicianship & romantic crises. Hearts Beat Loud treads water between those two extremes. It flirts with attacking raw nerves with Band Aid’s ruthlessness, but tempers that impulse with Sing Street’s tendency for wish-fulfillment fantasy. The result is still a wholly satisfying movie, even if a less distinct one.

Nick Offerman continues his career-long Grumpy Cat routine as the owner of a failing record store in a small East Coast town. Depressed about the inevitable closing of his shop, his complete lack of romantic & professional prospects, and his daughter’s impending move away to college on the opposite coast, his face only lights up when he dedicates his energy to one obsession: making music, forming a father-daughter band. Hearts Beat Loud occasionally pretends to be an ensemble drama, spreading its POV energies to character crises as wildly varied as middle-age dating anxiety, queer teen romance, senility, addiction, grief, and the list goes on. No one topic is ever explored at any thorough length or depth. That approach can sometimes be admirable, especially whenever same-gender or interracial romance is treated like no big deal, entirely unworthy of comment. For the most part, though, the potency of its emotional beats isn’t reached through any character-based drama as much as through the emotive power of music. Each relationship lightly sketched out in the film could have been more fully developed, but that time is instead dedicated to the cathartic payoff of a climactic concert where the half-formed songs that have been tinkering their way to completion over the entire film are allowed to shine in their now fully-realized glory. It helps that the music is genuinely good and easily carries the emotional weight the deliberately light narrative demands of it.

Low-key, earnest indie dramas like this often survive by the strength of their casts, which is no problem for the Hearts Beat Loud ensemble. Offerman is surrounded by such heavy lifters as Toni Collette, Ted Danson, Blythe Danner, American Honey’s Sasha Lane, and impressive newcomer Kiersey Clemons, who sings the film’s original numbers with Lorde-like emotional heft. High-Fidelity packed just as many impressive performers into a romantic drama about a failing record store, though, and that film’s caustic, self-absorbed bitterness sits on the stomach like a bout with food poisoning (not a fan). By contrast, Hearts Beat Loud approaches its own vinyl dude’s midlife crisis with a welcome dose of heartfelt sweetness to balance out the melancholy. It’s not quite as willing to interrogate its own emotional darkness as Band Aid, but its story of somewhat mediocre musicians finding immense relief in the therapeutic joys of songwriting still lands with a thundering thud when it counts: while the music plays. You can feel mediocrity creeping in from the corners of the frame in moments when the film pauses to worship at the almighty altar of Jeff Tweedy or updates the band-excitedly-hearing-their-music-on-the-radio-for-the-first-time trope with coffee shop Spotify listening, but mediocrity is oddly part of its low-key charm. This is a story about normal people finding joy in D.I.Y. song-building, a process that is infectious in its built-in satisfaction, as indicated by the increasing number of recent films in this genre.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Serenade for Haiti (2017)

A lot of the best documentaries we have on difficult subjects “luck” into capturing an important moment by happening to film something seemingly innocuous just when tragedy or an unexpected shift occurs. I’m not sure Serenade for Haiti qualifies as that exact type of happenstance, since the Haitian capital it was documenting, Port-au-Prince, is constantly undergoing some kind of fundamental change, whether political or Natural. The film does find a very specific lens to view the city’s biggest upheaval of the past decade through, however, by watching it unfold through the profile of Saint Trinité Music School, a very insular community in the larger picture of Haitian culture. By following staff & students of the music school in the years preceding & following the city-destroying earthquakes of 2010, the film finds a hyper specific frame for capturing the way Haiti has dealt with the once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe.

Founded in the 1950s, Saint Trinité Music School was founded as a charitable Catholic institution specifically meant to improve the lives of Port-au-Prince children who live below the poverty line. Early conversations with the students before the earthquake reveal lines like, “We want to show that people from our class can achieve wonderful things” and “Music is our refuge,” establishing just how important the school is to the community. Its results are easily detectable too, as Serenade for Haiti contrasts the angelic sounds of its longterm students with the unsure needling of its younger hopefuls. The school takes on an entirely different meaning after the 2010 disaster, with music becoming an act of therapy for students struggling with post-disaster PTSD. Their refusal to directly discuss the horrors of the earthquake that destroyed their school, city, country, and families is very much reminiscent of the way New Orleans (a city with strong Haitian roots) gradually recovered after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, especially once the healing sounds of music & Carnival culture creep back in through the rubble & the silence. The physical school of Saint Trinité is destroyed halfway into this film, but the school itself somehow continues to thrive.

The visual craft of Serenade for Haiti makes little effort to match the angelic sounds of its music, outside a few glimpses of Carnival celebrations or vibrantly-painted historic murals. The most the film has to offer as cinema is an intimate look at a tragedy most people are used to examining from a much greater remove. There might possibly be a more informative documentary to be made about the grand scale aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but by profiling members of a single music school within Port-au-Prince before & after the event, the film offers an intimacy & a specificity a more wide-reaching documentary could not accomplish. The filmmakers behind Serenade for Haiti would have had no way of knowing the significance of what they are documenting when the film first began production, but they stumbled into a personal, up-close look at a historic tragedy in the process. More importantly, though, they also happened to capture the cultural perseverance that emerged in its aftermath, documenting through music a culture that’s unfortunately grown accustomed to massive violent upheavals as a routine of daily life.

-Brandon Ledet