Review: ‘Miss Sharon Jones!,’ a documentary by Barbara Kopple

Director: Barbara Kopple

Two time Oscar winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., American Dream) takes a look at a soul singer battling cancer and the stresses brought on by rising success in the crowd pleasing, but remarkably well rounded film Miss Sharon Jones!.

For her latest effort Kopple follows the front-woman for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, a funk band that mixes R&B with big band and hard rock sensibilities, through two difficult years of her life. Shortly after completing a new album with her band-mates – appropriately titled Give the People What They Want – Jones gets diagnosed with stage-two pancreatic cancer. A touring and working musician to her very core, Jones seems lost during her first forced break in twenty years; a break from a job one callous record exec back in the 80s said she was “too short, too black, too fat, and too old” to hold. A strong woman who once worked as a prison guard at the infamous Riker’s Island prison, Jones focuses all of her available energy on healing up following major surgery and six months of chemotherapy so she can get back out on the road doing what she loves.

Kopple could have stopped right there and probably would have had enough material for a riveting film about one woman’s struggles with a disease many viewers tragically know all too much about. But it’s never really in doubt that Jones will beat the disease for the time being, so it’s refreshing that Kopple doesn’t rest on telling viewers only about Jones’ past and the fight she faces.

NEW YORK, NY - February 6th, 2014 - "Love ya!" Sharon adds a note and her autograph to the Beacon Theater elevator after her triumphant show.

Going beyond what could have easily been a standard “inspirational figure with a disease” picture, Kopple sticks around throughout Jones’ year-long treatment to document what the disease does to the people around her. Jones is conflicted, wanting to cut all ties to her band temporarily so she can come back better than ever, but she always understands that her well being affects the people who count on her success and employment.

The band’s new album was recorded in 2012 but not released until 2014 due to Jones’ illness, and the band and the record label are antsy to get Jones on the road and promoting their latest work as soon as possible. Kopple captures the friction between Jones and her less than understanding record label (and no representatives from the label care to appear on camera to talk about it), while also delicately balancing the needs of Jones’ management team and fellow musicians. As Jones starts to heal, her time away is noticeable and the documentary evolves past a standard musical biopic and into something a lot more fascinating. It becomes a film about a woman with enormous responsibilities pushed to just as great a degree in her professional life as cancer pushed her to in her personal life.

Despite moments in Miss Sharon Jones! where Kopple’s subject sometimes lashes out at those closest to her out of frustration, Jones comes across as a likable, energetic, but laid back everywoman. Jones takes what’s in front of her in stride, one step at a time, and without wallowing in self-pity. She has sympathy for those around her, particularly with regard to her working relationship with her manager, Alex, but she takes care of herself first and foremost. It’s refreshing to watch a film about a strong woman where the filmmaker doesn’t feel the need to make the subject more sensitive than it already is.

Miss Sharon Jones! is an assured look at a woman viewers and listeners alike can still expect great things from. Referred to as the “female James Brown,” the woman with the instantly recognizable voice has only just begun, and with The Dap-Kings breaking out into the mainstream more and more, now’s the time to get to know them better. This film is a perfect way to do so.

Miss Sharon Jones! opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Friday, August 19, 2016, and at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on Friday, August 26. The soundtrack for the film drops on Daptone Records on August 19.

Check out the trailer for Miss Sharon Jones!:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.