In the empowering tradition of Shut Up & Sing, Running From Crazy and Force of Nature, veteran documentarian Barbara Kopple serves up another portrait of female strength and resilience with Miss Sharon Jones!
For those unfamiliar with her work, the eponymous star is a funk-soul singer beloved by cognoscenti, likened by many to fellow Augustan James Brown, and the frontwoman for Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings since the mid-1990s. Begun in 2013 when Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, this moving but never mushy film tracks Jones’ struggle to beat the disease at a moment when she and the band looked poised to enjoy their greatest success. Although Jones isn’t a household name like Shut Up‘s Dixie Chicks, the protagonist’s sheer likeability and her uplifting story could propel this beyond the usual specialist and festival niches.
At one point in her career, Jones was told by music-industry executives that she was “too black, too fat, too short and too old” to become a star. Nevertheless, she kept on singing in churches and doing the odd gig, even if she had to earn rent by working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island prison for a spell. Kopple’s doc doesn’t go into great detail about how she hooked up with producer-composer-bassist Gabe Roth, aka Bosco Mann, and the other members of the Dap-Kings (several of them also run Daptone Records). But judging by the way she’s seen introducing her bandmates on stage and the Spanx-tight way they play together, it’s clear they are a crew closer-knit than many biological families.
Like any kind of family, they also bicker and chafe against each other at times of stress, especially when money troubles loom. Financial worries deepen for several members when word gets out about Jones’ illness, endangering loans for the studio and putting a future tour under doubt. By the end of the film, one member has left to take a more secure gig on a TV chat show.
With this kind of pressure on her, it’s no wonder Jones seeks solace from a close friend, Megan Hollen, who also happens to be a nutritionist, and moves in her while she undergoes chemotherapy in an upstate New York town. But even during these darkest moments while hooked up to a machine pumping her full of poison, Jones’ natural vivacity and performer’s ability to connect with people shines through, turning the chemo room into her own private stage.
Fortuitously for the doc, the story works its way naturally towards a happy ending, with the release of the band’s latest album Give the People What They Want reaping their biggest success on the back appearances on Ellen (a lifetime highlight for hardcore daytime-TV-fan Jones) and a Grammy nomination. But the most affecting moments in the film are in more intimate settings, for example when Jones sings in a small church in Queens and, transported by the Holy Spirit of joy, dances with abandon, or when her usually chipper assistant manager Austen Holman is captured sobbing quietly when things look bleak for Jones.
Some viewers may feel Kopple and editors Jean Tsien and Anne Fratto linger a trifle too long on the medical section of the story at the expense of the musical aspect, but the fluent camerawork and crystal-crisp sound recording for concert scenes go some way towards balancing the books. The film ends with a storming rendition of “Longer & Stronger,” a powerful hymn to endurance that has Jones singing proudly, optimistic as ever of “Fifty years of soul gone by/And fifty more to come.”
Production companies: A Cabin Creek Films production
With: Sharon Jones, Binky Griptite, Gabe Roth, Homer Steinweiss, Neal Sugarman, Joe Crispiano, Alex Kadvan, Megan Hollen, Austen Holman
Director-screenwriter: Barbara Kopple
Producers: Barbara Kopple, David Cassidy
Directors of photography: Gary Griffin, Tony Hardmon, Kyle Kibbe
Editors: Jean Tsien, Anne Fratto
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
Not rated, 93 minutes