Barbara Kopple’s compassionate documentary Miss Sharon Jones! was completed in 2015, got a limited theatrical release last summer, and hit DVD earlier this month. It is newly relevant for a saddening reason: its subject and star, the retro “queen of funk” singer Sharon Jones, passed away just last week. That makes watching Miss Sharon Jones!, which follows Jones as she deals with her first bout with pancreatic cancer and finishes up her Grammy-nominated album, more bittersweet than it might have been. It is well worth the watch, though, especially for viewers/listeners (like me) who hadn’t been familiar with Jones and her work with her band the Dap-Kings.
In recent years, Kopple, whose early work tended towards the political (1976’s Harlan County USA and 1990’s American Dream both won Best Documentary Oscars), has focused on female entertainers in extremis: films about Mariel Hemingway (Running from Crazy) and the Dixie Chicks (Shut Up and Sing). Miss Sharon Jones! devotes about as much time to Jones undergoing chemotherapy as to her music. Though there is some cookin’ footage of her and the Dap-Kings onstage and in the studio, the movie isn’t primarily a concert film; it’s a portrait of a woman and her art and the sickness that temporarily — and then, outside the reach of the film, permanently — stopped the music.
Intimate but not invasive, Kopple’s camera takes us close to Jones and her fear and pain. But Jones perseveres, and her strength permeates not only her singing but the movie itself, so that we don’t feel gross or exploitative for watching a dying woman. For, of course, at the time of filming, and possibly right up until the end, Jones was very much a living woman. I’ve heard and read many performers talk about whatever awful physical or mental torment they may have been going through, and as soon as the lights and applause hit them, all was forgotten. Sharon Jones frequently dances in this film, dances like a woman half her age and with none of the illness. The force of her will is exhilarating and, at times, a little intimidating. I would not have wanted to get between her and whatever she wanted. I would almost feel sorry for her cancer if the fucker hadn’t caught up with her in the end.
The movie shows us the power of art and music to transform Jones from a suffering middle-aged woman to a volcanic goddess of song. It does this with a minimum of cant or bathos. Jones is seen to have been a devout Christian, and one of the extended examples of her singing and dancing, as the shackles of her disease slip visibly from her body, takes place in a church. Kopple doesn’t underline this; it’s just part of the DNA of so much African-American music. Jones was a uniter: her fans are racially mixed, as are her band and her friends — her best friend, a white nutritionist, gladly put Jones up at her home for a while. Again without pushing too hard, the movie speaks gently for kindness between diverse people. It’s a message I don’t mind hearing just now.
In brief, Miss Sharon Jones! has more on its plate than just Miss Sharon Jones. In just 93 minutes, the movie encompasses a good deal of experience and truth, and we get to hear some mighty fine retro funk while we’re there. Like the Dixie Chicks film, whose subject was the backlash after Natalie Maines voiced anti-Bush sentiment during the run-up to the Iraq War, the movie captures the impact of one band member’s problems on many other people. Jones knew she had to go on — the Dap-Kings depended on the income from performing. She also knew she couldn’t just sit home and mope — the music was perhaps a more vital therapy than the toxins pumped into her veins. And now, in this year that has taken so much from us, she is gone, too. She was not a household name (despite doing the talk-show rounds to support her album), but a lot of people felt her loss sharply. She meant something to more people than she might have realized. I hope she did realize.