Gilbey on Film: Grace Jones at the cinema

The singer has never had the film roles she deserves.

So Grace Jones stole the show at the Queen’s Jubilee concert, all hoops and hoopla. That news has got to be up there with “Sun rises”, “Grass still green” and “Ocean wet today.” What did you expect? Tuning in to Jones’s blissful extra-terrestrial frequency just for those four minutes of “Slave to the Rhythm” reminds me that, as far as the movies are concerned, Grace Jones is the one that got away. Cinema held on to a piece of Bowie and Jagger, Madonna and Prince, even Dylan, but no Grace Jones. Not yet.

Oh, she has appeared in films, and even, in some cases (such as the raunchy vampire movie Vamp), she has given off low-voltage jolts of that electricity which makes her such a compelling stage performer. But Bowie at least has The Man Who Fell to Earth; Jagger has Performance; Madonna has Desperately Seeking Susan (an inconsequential film but a part that decisively crystallised and fed her emerging persona); Prince has Purple Rain and Dylan has Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Keynote films, testaments to charisma, proof enough that these performers possessed a personality and a visual sense of themselves which could not be contained on vinyl alone.

Despite the tacky pleasures of Vamp, Grace Jones doesn’t have one of those movies to her name. She was used as a novelty act in Roger Moore’s final Bond film, A View to a Kill, like an exotic animal hired for display purposes only at a freemasons’ ball. (What a shame that Duran Duran were guilty of - I mean, responsible for - that film’s theme song even though Jones was in the building, so to speak.) She popped up in other, even more rickety projects unworthy of her jungle-cat elegance and Frankenstein’s-monster menace: Conan the Destroyer, a sequel which no one wanted, in which she had to suffer the indignity of competing with Arnold Schwarzenegger for the camera’s attention; the Eddie Murphy rom-com Boomerang. I have fond memories of seeing the oddball thriller Siesta and Alex Cox’s western Straight to Hell, both in the late 1980s, but in both instances Jones was lost in the celebrity smorgasbord, one special guest star among many. And if there’s one thing you should never do with Jones, it’s overlook her.

Mostly she has chosen wayward or unpromising projects that gave her no chance to dazzle as she does on stage. I’d love to know why. Were better offers not extended to her? Her background is in theatre; she also starred in the 1973 Blaxploitation film Gordon’s War (which I haven’t seen). But that’s slim pickings for an artist so steeped in the visual. The fact that her music gives such good cinema only makes me ache even more to see her in a juicy role on screen. Our lists of favourite movies are restricted to celluloid, but it must be acknowledged that Jones’s Nightclubbing album (like Lou Reed’s Berlin or Ariel Pink’s Worn Copy) is one of the most stubbornly haunting films never made. David Lynch or Paul Schrader or the Jane Campion of In the Cut could have cooked up a role worthy of her - they could have made a whole movie based on the Nightclubbing album cover of her square, sculpted, metallic face - but would they have been ready for the creative battles that might have ensued on set? Our one hope could be that Matthew Barney is preparing a Grace Jones vehicle, but before I get too excited I have to keep reminding myself that wanting it doesn’t make it so.

Grace Jones performs at the Queen's Jubilee Concert on 4 June (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.