The incendiary soul singer Sharon Jones already had a few fans in the room when Barbara Kopple’s documentary “Miss Sharon Jones!” made its world premiere Friday night during the Toronto International Film Festival. By the end of the movie (which is seeking distribution), everybody in the place had a jones for Jones. The narrative arc of the film is the diminutive (“four foot 11 and a quarter”) singer’s more than year-long battle with cancer — and her return to performing. But by lavishing huge helpings of Jones’ music and explosive performances on what is a very intimate portrait, the two-time-Oscar-winning Kopple keeps the doc from ever becoming maudlin, or predictable, or from even slowing down.
There’s certainly an Oscar-friendly trend afoot: Jessica Edwards’ Mavis Staples movie “Mavis” is out there, as is Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and, of course, Asif Kapadia’s “Amy”; Amy Berg’s Janis Joplin doc (“Little Girl Blue”) is coming, and only the good Lord above knows what’s going to happen with that hot potato of an Aretha Franklin movie (“Amazing Grace”). “Miss Sharon Jones!” is about a performer no less talented but perhaps less high-profile than the others. But Kopple’s film could change that. And the crowd in Toronto sensed it.
So … some of the wind got taken out of the audience’s sails when Jones finally arrived on stage (you couldn’t see her moving through in the crowd until she was actually ON the stage) and she announced that her cancer – which the film leaves us thinking has been eradicated – was back. “I start chemo on Wednesday,” she said. “But I’m gonna keep fighting. We got a long way to go.” She was joined by the members of her longtime backup band, the Dap Kings (Jones and the Kings got their first Grammy nomination last year for the 2014 release “Give the People What They Want”). “It’s a good movie,” deadpanned the bassist-bandleader Gabriel Roth, who said the music in the film “sounded good … [but] we gotta work on a few things…”
Also on hand was Jones’ oncologist, Dr. James Leonardo, who when his turn came at the mike, looked at the room and the screen and said, “People ask me how I can do what I do. This is how.” Jones may not be out of the woods yet, but the prognosis seemed positive.