The revivalist soul outfit Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings has spent the past decade and a half slowly gaining critical and commercial attention, to the point where they earned a Grammy nomination for their most recent studio album, 2014’s Give The People What They Want. Still, they’re a long way from being a household name, so one might expect that a documentary about Jones would be a generic biographical portrait, introducing her and her band to a wider audience by providing a detailed history of her personal journey. That’s not what two-time Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA; Wild Man Blues; Shut Up & Sing) has in mind, however. Miss Sharon Jones! touches the usual bases, but at a gallop, as Kopple is much more interested in chronicling Jones’ recent battle with stage-two pancreatic cancer, which sidelined her for over a year as she underwent extensive chemotherapy. While that may sound like a downer, the film itself is anything but, offering a genuinely uplifting testament to one woman’s resilience.
Anyone who’s seen Jones perform knows that frailty doesn’t come naturally to her. Kopple includes clips early on that convey what a James Brown-level dynamo she is onstage, often kicking off her heels during the show to do a manic barefoot stomp that sends her braids flying. So it’s sobering to watch as she has her head shaved in advance of chemotherapy, leaving her bald for the rest of the movie. But a sequence in which she tries on various goofy wigs quickly confirms that her sense of humor remains intact, and while the emphasis throughout is more on fighting cancer than creating music, the passion and conviction that makes Jones such a formidable singer is manifest in her everyday life. Kopple probably could have made an equally fine documentary by following an entirely healthy Jones around—that’s how enjoyable her company is, regardless of the circumstances. Just watching her tuck into a pulled-pork sandwich is a delight. (It’s also immensely charming to see how excited she gets at the prospect of being on Ellen, which she watches every day while recuperating.)
On the other hand, the cancer narrative does build to a rousing finale: Jones’ comeback performance at New York’s Beacon Theatre on February 6, 2014. Still mostly bald, and visibly weak, she has trouble remembering the lyrics to the songs from what was then the Dap-Kings’ brand-new album, which had been recorded two years earlier, just before her diagnosis. When she falters, though, she takes it in stride (“I’m gonna do this a lot tonight,” she tells the crowd with a smile), and she’s stunningly energetic for someone who’s pushing 60, much less someone who just spent a full year being regularly irradiated. Sadly, the film’s happy ending was short-lived; by the time Miss Sharon Jones! premiered at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival (about 18 months after production wrapped), Jones’ cancer had returned, and she’s currently back in treatment. The prognosis isn’t great, which means now is the time to meet this amazing woman, if you haven’t already. Those who already have will require no further encouragement.