Featured photograph by Jean-Paul Goude.
This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be making this month about the singer Grace Jones and her romantic and creative partnership with the artist Jean-Paul Goude. Check back on Tuesday for the next installment, and feel free to let me know what you think of the series in a comment.
PART ONE: The End
Against a blood-red backdrop, pummeling a drum, dressed in a gorilla suit with a lipsticked mouth, the star appears. Now bursts of yellow contrast the cool blue light that accentuates her black skin as she chants. Only her lips move. Her body is eerily, robotically still, until she jerks her arms to smash the cymbals that flank her, sending them crashing to the floor. Black sunglasses that flash in the light make her look like a bug-eyed alien, surveying her audience as if deciding whether or not to annihilate them all. Now there are three of her, now five, now seven, all dressed in black suits and peaked red hats like the rooftops of toy houses. Now armed with an accordion, she veers between singing and shouting the words of an old French ballad. For a moment, the words are as soft as they ought to be as she lovingly manipulates the accordion, but now she is glaring at the crowd, barking the lyrics as if they were a condemnation. As the song ends, a single tear escapes an unblinking eye. Now she (but is it really her?) is dancing, her high-heeled feet moving faster than humanly possible. Now bathed in blue, as an army of doppelgängers marches past, Grace Jones declares, “I’m a demolition man.”
Although some portion of that immortal performance was filmed at London’s Drury Lane Theater by Rex Pyke, since its 1982 release A One Man Show has been invariably attributed to the vision of its production designer and director, Jean-Paul Goude. Goude not only filmed Jones’ 1981 show at the Savoy Theater in New York City, from which the remaining concert footage was taken, and directed the music videos that are intercut with the live shows in the film, but also conceived the androgynous, menacing, alluring persona for which Grace Jones became famous. Despite the wide-ranging work the singer has produced in the past three decades, A One Man Show remains the apex of her career, the most potent crystallization of her enduring image.
Last year, in a review of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, the critic Hilton Als compares the album’s companion film unfavorably with A One Man Show, which he extols as “a, if not the, model for directors interested in how to present black female artists.” Pointing to the similarly martial choreography used in Beyoncé’s “Formation” tour as well as visual parallels between the music video for “Hold Up” and some of Goude’s more recent work, Als concludes that Lemonade could not possibly have been created outside of Goude’s benevolent shadow.
When A One Man Show was conceived, Jones and Goude were enmeshed in an artistic and romantic partnership that would come to define both of their careers. In her autobiography, the cheekily titled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, which was written with Paul Morley, Jones confirms that the persona she adopts in A One Man Show was born of Goude’s fantasies of her:
Jean-Paul, perversely, as the creator/master of a show about freedom, might have considered some of these themes and processed them through me. The black woman as a weapon—the black woman who felt she could exist anywhere, who could change what it is to be black at will, who didn’t want to be fixed so that she couldn’t move through and into different worlds. Maybe he was scared of me, and this was his way of explaining it to himself. Perhaps he was exoticizing me, and these were his fantasies about me taken to the limits. Perhaps he wanted to reconfigure my celebrity status in a way that turned him on. He wanted to invent a brand-new sort of diva—Marlene Dietrich, the other side of Kraftwerk; Eartha Kitt, the other side of David Bowie and Klaus Nomi.
In his most well-known book, Jungle Fever, Goude claims credit for every aspect of A One Man Show. “Grace let me make her over completely, use any effect I could find to turn her into what I wanted her to be,” he writes. “Whatever Grace couldn’t do, a clone was made by me to do it for her.”
But Goude’s meticulous stagecraft would simply have overwhelmed a less powerful stage presence than Jones. Watching A One Man Show today, or at any time since its creation, one is struck less by the dazzling magic of Goude’s theatrical illusions than by the irreversible spell cast by his star. In Als’ view, “Goude was free to reinvent and play with racial stereotypes because he and Jones resisted the standard narratives about her black female body.” With all due respect to Als, a tremendously insightful critic and one of my personal heroes, this bold pronouncement awards far too much credit to the man behind the scenes and far too little to the woman at center-stage. Goude’s freedom to safely toy with racial tropes whose dangers he could never truly comprehend would be meaningless were it not for Jones’ position in the crosshairs of racist and sexist oppression. Moreover, although the film derives social significance from the race and gender of its central actor, Jones’ performance launches her beyond the gravitational pull of the taxonomic forces that govern the lives of mere mortals. Had the star of A One Man Show not been a black woman, its impact would have been immeasurably diminished, but no one but Jones could have so fearlessly embodied the possibility of a form of humanity that transcends all categorization. Far from a puppet in Goude’s hands, the character Jones brings to life in A One Man Show exposes the invisible strings that tether us all—but not her.
“A One Man Show was the distillation of this process where I was as much a performance artist as a pop singer or actress,” Jones writes in the memoir. “Theatrically, I was not thinking, This is a way of finding a different way to be black, lesbian, male, female, animal…I wanted to use my body to express how I had liberated myself from my background, ignored obstacles, and created something original, based on my own desires, fears, and appetites. I was using my body as a language.”
A One Man Show proved to be the greatest product of the Jones/Goude creative partnership, but the strain of producing it destroyed their romantic relationship. As he was editing the film, Jones recalls, “Jean-Paul was wrapped up in me, carving me up, remaking me, putting me together, paying very close attention to me on paper, but ignoring me for real.” She soon “became very disillusioned, concerned that he preferred the illusion that he had created, not the actual me.” Goude’s account, which was written soon after the breakup in the bitter tone of one still smarting from a fresh wound, implies that Jones’ fears were far from unfounded. “My masterpiece was a vision entirely of my own of what was essentially a simple, naïve person, holding back to what she had always been,” he claims. “By the time ‘One Man Show’ reached the U.S., I knew I had lost her.”