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Grace Jones & Jean-Michel Basquiat: Iconoclasts in motion

Tue, May 22, 2018
by Rooney Elmi

Over the next two weekends, the Wex presents new documentaries about artists who've held the public's attention and respect for decades: Sophie Fiennes' Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami and Sara Driver's Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Below, Rooney Elmi, publisher of SVLLY(wood), which just released its third issue, and a contributor to a number of national film sites and publications, shares her thoughts on how each filmmaker approaches her iconoclastic subject.

How does one subscribe labels to trailblazers that deliberately evade classification?

When it comes to the subjects behind Sara Driver’s Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Sophie Fiennes’s Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, the rebellious attitudes behind the titular characters merely allow their signature iconoclastic nature to make itself known.

In these two documentaries, we’re transported, respectively, into the intimate lives and careers of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Grace Jones, two of the 20th century's boldest and most enigmatic creatives. Despite dabbling in different creative fields (Basquiat in painting and graffiti and Jones in fashion, music, and film) the duo helped define the everlasting "cool" of New York City's underground culture. Yet, if you’re eager to discover how these black Caribbean artists went from humble beginnings to amassing international fame and fortune, you’ll be hard pressed to locate their biographical origins in these unorthodox films. Instead, Boom for Real and Bloodlight and Bambi act as extensions of the people they’re profiling, further propagating their individual mystique, which continues to pierce the cultural zeitgeist. After both films made the festival rounds in late 2017, they’re finally making their theatrical debuts in Columbus at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Jean-Michel Basquiat has only grown in critical and financial acclaim with each passing decade since his early demise in 1988. In Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, we bear witness to the genesis of the artistic titan against the backdrop of the notorious city that formed him with the help of archival footage of the shifting arts scene of the late 1970s and ‘80s. Director Sara Driver, a No Wave pioneer and friend of the late painter, contextualizes the culture surrounding Basquiat that helped shape his work and personhood and provides a blueprint of the immense influence he still has on contemporary culture. Although the more formulaic of the two documentaries in terms its talking heads approach, Boom for Real showcases the ambitious genesis of a young man whose relevance can be traced traced in modern day hip hop to 'zine culture. From Vince Staples SAMO record influenced by Basquiat’s infamous graffiti tag of the same name to Jay-Z’s 2013 Grammy award-winning album Magna Carta Holy Grail and the resurgence of DIY self publishing.  the rise of a variety of artistic platforms that now dominate the mainstream find a parallel in the ascent of Basquiat’s artistic career. As singer-songwriter Felice Rosser brilliantly encapsulates towards the end of the film, “In a world where black people are not supported by the art world, he did it! He blew the roof off that sucker!”

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is a more vérité portraiture of the eponymous multi-hyphenate. Spearheaded by British documentarian Sophie Fiennes during the recording and subsequent world tour of Jones’ Hurricane album in the late 2000s, the film propels viewers into the familiarity of the androgynous entertainer's obscure lifestyle, tracking her from spectacular 35mm-shot stage performances to intimate family reunions in her motherland of Jamaica. Despite the narrative disjointedness due to Fiennes observationalist gaze rather than the standard prober exhibited in Boom for Real, audiences are granted exclusive access that makes this a must-see for die-hard fans whilst delivering something special for those uninformed of the performer's legendary oeuvre. Bloodlight and Bami is as much a helmed by Jones as Fiennes.

In the quest to uncover the magic and might of these island-bred, New York-raised iconoclastic pop culture figures, these two documentaries either provide context or permit access to the private worlds of celebrities whilst continuing to protect the mystique that makes them such indelible creatives.

Images: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, image courtesy of Kino Lorber; Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo: Alexis Adler.


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