Director: Barbara Kopple
Featuring: Sharon Jones, The Dap Kings
ChinoKino score: A-
Review by Allan Tong
Originally released before her death last November, Miss Sharon Jones! now serves as a memoriam to the late, great soul singer. This heartwrenching film by renown documentarian, Barbara Kopple (Harlan Country, U.S.A.), and just released on Netflix, chronicles Jones' battle against pancreatic cancer for seven months in 2013 after her diagnosis. It's not your typical glossy music doc, but a war movie.
First of all, Jones was an anomaly in the youthful world of music. She struggled for many years signing in wedding bands and even working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island before gaining fame in her fifties. As she recounts in the film, record execs told her she was too black, too fat and too short to make it big. Thankfully, she proved them wrong.
The only weakness of Kopple's film is that it hardly touches on Jones' early struggles. Jones' pre-cancer life remains sketchy to newbies and fans alike and would have explained where her perseverance and positivity to fight cancer came from.
Miss Sharon Jones! chronicles the battle she waged, and anyone who's lost a friend or relative to cancer will recognize this war. Jones weeps as a barber shaves off her bouncy locks of hair. At a studio rehearsal, she vetoes a tour because she's too weak to dance onstage, never mind stand. Famous for her acrobatics onstage, like her idol James Brown, a bald, thin Jones laments that she can only sit for now.
Cancer affects not only Jones, but the people around her. Her managers struggle to keep bookings going yet bend over backwards to accommodate their star's health. The Dap Kings, possibly the greatest soul band on the planet, support their friend, but also wonder how they can pay their mortgages, since the banks have read that Jones has cancer. Reality vs.showbiz.
What remains constant is that voice. Jones was the heir to the great soul shouters of the sixties (Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding) comparable to Amy Winehouse (who also recorded with the Dap Kings). Even emaciated and undergoing chemo, Jones can still raise a church roof as seen in an amazing scene where she sings gospel or on the Ellen show when she recovers enough to roar and shake her hips again.
However, as she regains that strength, Jones knows that the cancer can return at any moment. The monster never goes away, and unfortunately we know her outcome. But this film offers a ray of hope, as symbolized by Jones' music. She's dancing and singing in the face of death, that there's something worth fighting for, something to live for even against the odds.
And that's heroic.