Michael McDonagh is entranced by an Irish Film Board financed feature film about the life of the very un-Irish, one of a kind, disco diva Grace Jones filmed at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin
by Michael McDonagh
When writing for the Irish World there is one cardinal rule that our editor always insists I comply with. The piece must have an Irish or Irish in Britain angle or subject matter, of interest to readers. So, when invited last week to an exclusive red carpet premiere of a film about the Jamaican born Disco Diva and fashion legend Grace Jones, I knew not one word from me about the night or the film would be found on these pages, as clearly there was no Irish angle. But I was so, so wrong.
Although Sophie Fiennes, the talented director of this intimate and revealing portrayal of such an extraordinary force of creative energy, is English the producer Kate Holly is Irish and the entire five-year project was produced ‘with the support of incentives for the Irish Film Industry provided by the Irish Government’.
In fact Bord Scannan na hEireann (The Irish Film Board) was one of the production partners enabling the astonishing multi camera live footage to be shot at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. This was made possible by employing a large Irish film crew, which included as Production Manager (Dublin Theatre Unit) one Rob Furey, son of singer Finbar Furey with Line Producer (Dublin Theatre Unit) Mary McCarthy, helped by a range of Irish skilled film and sound and post production technicians.
Names included: Sinead Barry, Ruairi Moore, Caoimhe MacGuire, Jennifer McCann, Kevin O’Brien, Oisin Byrne, Sinead McKenna, Richie Donnely, Ruairi O’Brien, Ivan Mc- Cullough, Mick O’Rourke and Cillian Duffy.
Also of huge significance were the extraordinary hats created by Ireland’s top milliner Philip Treacy…and of course Grace has an Irish manager, Brendan Coyle.
Having spent most of my career filming in Ireland with Irish crews as my first choice it was no surprise to me that director Sophie told me at the party that “Irish crews are amongst the best in the world and so great to work with”.
Employing so many Irish people and bringing a prestigious international production to boost the Dublin economy it is clearly a project of which Ireland’s film and TV industry can be be proud. That’s is the statutory Irish angle – now, please, please, do read on.
Most people know of the statuesque Grace Jones from her often repeated hilarious TV meltdown moment, when she whacked the English TV chat show host Russell Harty around the head as she felt he had turned his back on her to talk to his other guests. (She gives her version of this episode in the film).
Others may remember Grace for her chisel-headed fierce assassin role, playing Miss May Day opposite Roger Moore in the James Bond film, A View to a Kill, and many of us will remember dancing to her hits like Pull up to the Bumper in those heady Disco Days of the late 70s and early eighties.
More recently TV viewers would have been astonished to see her perform her hit for the Her Majesty the Queen at the Silver Jubilee Celebrations, wearing a ‘flesh flashing’ red and black leotard, whilst keeping a hoola hoop spinning around her gyrating waist for the whole song.
Grace is 69 and no shrinking violet.
Shot on high quality 16mm film, not video, the film opens dramatically at the Olympia Theatre as Grace struts the stage in a gold goats-head death mask.
This stunning opening shot of the sometimes-terrifying Grace was immaculately executed by Fiennes by having so many high quality cameras both in front and behind the star. She then intercut startling images from this remarkable Dublin concert with the intimate fly-on-the-wall documentary footage of the alien Grace-World that this charismatic icon inhabits.
There’s none of the usual film devices like linear narratives, old footage or talking heads, often used with music business biopics. Here, earned the trust of her subject, Sophie dips in and out of the concert, hotel suites, recording studios, TV studios, dressing rooms, bedrooms and even bathrooms across the world to show us Grace as she really is, with and without make-up or even her clothes.
We eavesdrop on a visit home to the family and her mother and brother Chris in Jamaica. Over a family meal they recall the vicious individually named straps her stepfather hung on the wall to be selected to beat Grace, Chris and her brothers. Painting toenails or watching TV were all forbidden. As children they were made to read The Bible during beatings.
At times Grace is really scary and at times she is really funny, at other times she is emotional and moving. She acknowledges, with some pain, the ferocity and anger she displays in her concerts – with her whips and bondage props – has been bottled up inside her since childhood because of her brutal step father, and she channels his viciousness on stage.
I was invited because I worked with Grace a few times in different countries – and survived the challenge.
In the film she is seen in a luxury hotel suite stubbornly refusing to leave for the gig, having a major tantrum and screaming down her ancient Nokia phone at her much put-upon agent in New York, Michael Schweiger.
Some detail of her suite or her contract or her money for the show had not been fixed to her satisfaction. In such cases, I can personally attest, you would not want to be on the receiving end of her wrath.
She once used my phone, on a beach in Spain late at night, to deliver such a tirade to the same unfortunate agent.
I had a guilty chuckle at the familiar scene. But once the pre-show nerves were gone and the show was over I always found her to be generous, self-effacing, down to earth and in possession of a great sense of humour.
She has a close bond with her family and genuine warmth for those she trusts and I’m one of those people who is very fond of her.
Out of a sense of nostalgia I crept past her minders and into her dressing room where I got a big, joyous, affectionate hug from this remarkable diva, herself a huge influence on music and fashion and contemporary culture.
It was so good to see her again in such good form. As the end credits rolled on the film, that was also being screened alongside a question and answer session screened simultaneously in cinemas around the country, I was amused to notice that the name of Grace Jones’s own company for this ambitious and creditworthy project is ‘Sligoville Ltd’.
Catch this film if you can while it’s on release or make sure you catch it on TV or Netflix or your favourite streaming service. Parts are mesmerising, and parts are funny, and you will certainly find it it will be an eye opener.
She really is one of a kind and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it took the Irish to celebrate it.
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