Sharon Jones Remembered by Documentarian Barbara Kopple: "When She Was on That Stage, She Had No Pain"

Sharon Jones - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

The director of 'Miss Sharon Jones!' shares memories of the singer's indomitable and occasionally mischievous spirit — and how she was humming, if not singing, even to the end.

Sharon Jones left a particularly powerful last will and testament: Miss Sharon Jones!, the feature film directed by famed documentarian Barbara Kopple, which won plaudits on the festival and art house circuits this year. Kopple says it never even occurred to her along the movie’s four-year journey that it might stand as a eulogy and not a survival story, although it barely makes for any less upbeat of a viewing experience now that the singer has succumbed to cancer at age 60.

If you have any acquaintance with Jones’ unbending charms, offstage as well as on, it’s not hard to guess why Miss Sharon Jones! is one of the two favorites Kopple has from among her 30-plus films, along with the one that made her name as a filmmaker in 1976, Harlan County U.S.A. The day after Jones’ death was announced, Kopple spoke with Billboard about why Jones made such a personal impact on her, still sounding astonished that the woman who sings “I’m Still Here” so movingly in the movie is not still here.

“When I was making the film, I never thought for a minute that anything would happen to her," says Kopple. "All the time that I saw her, whether it was having chemotherapy or getting ready to perform again, it was done with so much light and perseverance and energy behind it that I just felt that someone with this kind of strength, courage and motivation has to make it. So I never thought that she wouldn’t, for one minute. It never even crossed my mind. She made you think, ‘Yes, I can do this, there’s nothing in this world I can’t do’ — that’s what she would have you feel.

“I just saw her a week ago. The film was showing at the opening night of the Glimmerglass Film Days festival in Cooperstown [N.Y.], and she was staying in Sharon Springs and really excited to be there. The next day I was driving up there with her manager, Alex [Kadvan], when she was rushed to the emergency room. We went right to the hospital and saw her, and she didn’t really say much. She just looked at us, and her eyes widened and she had a smile on her face."

Kopple continues: “All the Dap-Kings came in, and they were playing a guitar, and she was humming the most intricate melodies, whether the songs were soul or gospel. It was just amazing. She just lay there and hummed to the music. She knew every single song, and she didn’t stop. Even after I left and more of the Dap-Kings and other people came, they told me, ‘She’s still singing’ — meaning humming. It was beautiful. It was all the power of her voice, without the words."

Says Kopple, “We did a Q&A after the screening in Cooperstown and didn’t want to say anything to this packed audience about what was going on. I didn’t know how I was going to feel looking at the film then, or even this week, when it showed here in New York at NYC DOCS. But I was so happy to be watching it, and I didn’t think I would be — seeing her dancing and singing and moving with that tremendous power in her voice that just comes from her soul and seeing her go through all of this and come out the other side and go out and perform. It gives you a different perspective when you look at it like, ‘I’m not gonna see this again from her, ever.’ But even with all of that, I just loved just watching all of her little mischievous laughs, like when she’d be bad and eat food she wasn’t supposed to eat. I’m just addicted to seeing her in that way.

“Even when she wouldn’t feel good, she’d always make you laugh. She’d be laughing at her situation, saying, ‘You know, I’ve got cancer — cancer doesn’t have me.’ I never heard her complain. I mean, she’d say, ‘I feel weak,’ or things like that, and then in the next sentence, ‘I’m so happy, you guys — I’d love to do this.’ And the beautiful thing about Sharon is that whenever you were with her, no matter who you were, you felt like she was your friend, because she was so inclusive and open and transparent about everything."

Says Kopple, “My favorite moment of the film is when she’s about to go on at the Beacon in New York, after battling back from not being able to perform. She didn’t know who she was going to be … what Sharon she would be. She was getting all her nerves and taking a deep breath, and then when I saw her at the curtains, from behind, right when she’s about to go onto the Beacon stage in her sparkly dress, with her head sort of cocked to the side, she looked to me like a boxer going into the ring.

“But I loved her mischievous moments, too. She’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll drink these green juices,’ and when she was living at Nathan’s she’d go out and buy a ham and put it in her refrigerator — something that she wasn’t supposed to have — and be really excited. There’s the scene in the film where she was eating the brisket, and she was like, ‘Nobody talk to me!’ and just gobbled it down. The way she was eating that brisket was the way she lived, with that great lust for life."

Kopple continues: “I wish she were here to enjoy every single thing. In January, the Roots are going to be performing for the Obama White House, and Michelle asked particularly if Sharon could come and sing. In the film, Michelle has gone to one of her concerts, and [Sharon] inscribed the album Give the People What They Want to Michelle, and made a joke about ‘the president’s going to be really mad — "why didn’t she inscribe it to me, too?"’ Now they wanted her to sing. So many great things happened for her recently: going on tour in Europe, and playing for Hall and Oates here. Her song ‘I’m Still Here’ won best song for the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards [in early November], and she called me the next day because she couldn’t go, saying, ‘Oh, Barbara, I’m feeling a little weak … but [screaming] I’m so happy this song won!’ That’s how she is. I saved her message.

“She was also going around showing the film to people who have cancer, and the things that she was saying were so inspiring, that you just have to live life every day for what it is, and don’t be afraid. She would just give them so much hope, and that’s what this film is about, too. She made it for four years, which is pretty spectacular, and did what she wanted to do, which was sing and perform. And when she was on that stage, she had no pain — none whatsoever. The adrenaline was pumping and she got standing ovations and loved every second of it. That’s how she wanted to live her life, and she did live it to the fullest. I wish it were a lot longer.”

This story first appeared on