Previous knowledge of soul singer Sharon Jones is not compulsory for loving Barbara Kopple’s winning “Miss Sharon Jones!,” which introduces audiences not only to Jones and her irrepressible charm and mighty spirit, but does it through the lens of easily the worst time in her life. Jones, who found success later in life (her first record hit shelves when she was 40), is described early on in the feature as “a female James Brown” (thanks to her soulful singing and her energetic on-stage antics), a nifty binary that effectively telegraphs both the power and the possibility of her talent.
Yet for all that praise, Jones is unafraid to look back at harsher times, and a story about a Sony executive who deemed her “too fat, too dark, too short, too old” to be a star pops up throughout the film’s narrative, a matter-of-fact anecdote that stings long after its telling. It’s not Jones’ seemingly improbable rise to the top that “Miss Sharon Jones!” documents (though that’s in there, too), however, but the unexpected illness that almost took away both her career and her life, just as she was gaining traction on both of them.
Kopple’s film picks up after Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013, an entry point seemingly ripe for dramatic tension and the kind of tropes we often see in films — both documentary and narrative — about people facing vicious illnesses.
But while Kopple doesn’t shy away from introducing the kind of imagery we’d expect to see in a film about someone battling cancer, including an early sequence that sees Jones shaving her head, a series of visits to get chemotherapy and even a handful of moments that hinge upon test results, the film’s intimate technique and Jones’ startling openness allow even these standard inclusions to feel fresh and, most importantly, real. The film isn’t about Sharon Jones having cancer, it’s about Sharon Jones.
Fittingly enough for a such a loved character, Jones’ illness doesn’t just impact her life and work, and “Miss Sharon Jones!” spends plenty of time addressing the ripple effect her cancer has on the other people in her life, including her managers and bandmates in The Dap-Kings, who struggle to marry their emotional pain with the financial toll that not performing has taken on them.
Despite a hefty number of tears shed throughout the course of the film, Kopple never plays up fraught situations for cheap emotions or knee-jerk reactions. The effect divorces the film from similar narratives that rely so deeply on tough situations to tell stories, instead turning the film into a close character study of the fascinatingly plucky Miss Jones.
Even with plenty of compelling focal points to pick from, “Miss Sharon Jones!” is mostly concerned with getting to know Jones in a very real way. Meeting her while she’s down — and given the effect that her rigorous chemo sessions have on her, that’s often a literal occurrence — informs the film in ways that often sneak up on the audience with their emotional power. Clearly a dynamo in both her life and work, observing the juxtaposition between pre-cancer Jones (the film is filled with excellent performance footage of her over the years) and the still-mending Sharon is profound; Kopple resists making cheap comparisons between the two, instead opting to let the footage speak for itself. The film is relatively straightforward in its storytelling, a plain-faced account that could so easily fall back on emotion-driven tricks.
Similarly, Kopple’s film doesn’t use a Jones’ big comeback performance as the driving force behind her work, though it’s a narrative line that plenty of other films about people trying to recapture their former glory have utilized. Instead, the film is focused on Jones’ journey, with her big show as merely another hurdle to cross in a seemingly never-ending series of setbacks. That doesn’t dilute the film’s final moments, however, not in the least. It’s what’s best about the film in microcosmic form, Kopple’s refusal to adhere to storytelling techniques that could so easily rile emotion from its viewers, instead choosing to focus on a winning subject who could enthrall viewers no matter the circumstance. That big comeback performance? It’s just a bonus.
“Miss Sharon Jones!” had its U.S. premiere as the Opening Night section for DOC NYC this week.