There’s a quickly edited introduction to the force of nature that is Sharon Jones that opens Barbara Kopple’s documentary “Miss Sharon Jones!” It’s a quick run-through of the struggles that Jones faced as an aspiring singer — she sang in a wedding band and worked as a Riker’s Island corrections officer after being told by a music executive that she was “too black, too short, too fat” to make it in the music industry. But she struck gold with her retro soul-revival band Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, which she leads with fervor and energy, channeling the spirit of James Brown. Though this is just the teaser before the title, you want to slow it down and dive in — this is the story (or at least, a story) we want “Miss Sharon Jones!” to tell.
“Miss Sharon Jones!” is inspiring and heartfelt, to be sure, but it’s far quieter and more contemplative than what we can only assume the tale of Jones’ unique rise to fame might be. After witnessing the 4-foot-11 dynamo in action in the intro, the doc kicks into gear with Jones’ diagnosis of Stage 2 pancreatic cancer. Almost instantly, we see one of her most vulnerable moments as her hair is gently sheared in anticipation of her surgery and treatment.
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Jones’ life story is woven throughout the depictions of the year that she battles cancer, an illness that sidelines her from performing. While convalescing at the country home of a good friend, she takes a necessary rest from the grind of the touring musician’s life, receiving chemotherapy, painting, watching daytime TV. A trip home to South Carolina offers a chance for her to reminisce on her upbringing in the segregated South (Jones was born in 1956), casually commenting on the racism she experienced at the local burger shack. She puffs stogies and casts a mean fishing line, a country girl through and through.
But from humble beginnings, Jones never gave up on her musical gift, which is an unstoppable force, a seeming possession that takes over her body. Though she’s too weak for her signature foot-stomping, hair-shaking performances with the band, the music needs to come out of her, as we see in a scene where she stands up to sing at her Queens, N.Y., church. She’s taken hold of by the holy spirit in a wild, cathartic expression of her gift, and it’s one of the most profound moments in the film.
Kopple also checks in with Jones’ band, the musicians who have played with her for years and whose mastery of old-school soul and funk, and commitment to traditional recording methods, crafts their signature sound. As live performers, their fate hangs in the balance of Jones’ health, which adds additional financial pressure on her. The film follows the ramp up to Jones’ recovery deadline, and the shows that have been already booked anticipating her being healed and ready to perform. Everyone around her remains positive about her health, but there are a few moments of stark clarity where they comprehend the real possibilities of other outcomes.
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Pancreatic cancer is a dangerous, often fatal cancer, but Jones approaches her recovery with a calm sense of determination, and she beats it like a champ. Her eventual return to form onstage at the Beacon Theater in New York is an emotional and moving moment. While it seems clear that Jones wants to return to her old life, she can’t help but share the ways in which the experience has affected her. She embraces the gift of life with a new gusto, a renewed sense of vigor in her performances, which take on a more profound meaning, after she was unable to perform for so long.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste, but the small snippets that we get about the formation of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, about her relationship with her backup singers and the diverse backgrounds of the band members, all seem so much more fascinating than just a straightforward story about conquering this specific challenge. At times, “Miss Sharon Jones!” feels like the sequel to a far more interesting documentary.
There’s no denying Jones’ magnetism, her amazing spirit and her otherworldly talent, and “Miss Sharon Jones!” is a fine tribute to her as an individual. But it leaves you wanting more — more from her history and rich backstory. It’s clear the whole story hasn’t been told — yet. [B]