In Barbara Kopple's intimate documentary "Miss Sharon Jones!" we see an artist simultaneously at the top of her game and the lowest point of her life. Chronicling singer Sharon Jones's experiences over the year following her 2013 diagnosis with stage 2 pancreatic cancer, the film is ultimately an uplifting testament to one woman's resilience and strength.
The film opens with a brief overview of Jones's career, how she struggled for many years fronting a wedding band and working as a corrections officer, fighting to prove wrong the music executives who, despite her talent, continually told her she was "too black, too short, too fat." Never one to back down, the singer eventually found success with her retro-soul band, Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings. Though not a household name, the group has spent the past decade building up a following of passionate fans, along with critical and low-key commercial success.
Aside from her own internal battle against the disease, when Jones takes the necessary time off for recovery, she feels pressure from the band, backup singers, and managers whose livelihoods depend on her being able to perform. Throughout the film, Kopple explores that tension; one of the best aspects of the film is the way it demonstrates not only how the disease impacts Jones herself but every person around her.
Any documentary with such a narrow focus is only as good as its subject, and Kopple could hardly do better than Jones: the singer is such a magnetic, charismatic presence that we'd follow her anywhere. From her endearing excitement over appearing on "Ellen" (her favorite daytime talk show) to bringing the house down on stage, Sharon Jones is a firecracker.
That makes seeing Jones laid low even harder to take. Spending her days recuperating at the country home of a close friend, one can sense the singer growing restless. Contrasted with scenes of Jones busting loose on stage (she's frequently described as "the female James Brown"), we can see how taking time off away from music is eating away at her. Getting back on the road is a long and arduous path, and though the physical toll of chemotherapy is plain to see, she refuses to let cancer hold her back. Even in her weakened state, she's a force of nature, and the strength she demonstrates throughout the film is genuinely inspiring.
While it's undeniably emotional, Kopple's film never works to wring tears from its audience, but always follows the example set by Jones's endlessly positive energy. It helps that the film is loaded with fantastic music; it's damn near impossible to not bop along with Jones and The Dap Kings during the film's many infectious musical performances. As tribute to a supremely talented singer and an empathetic portrait of fortitude and perseverance, "Miss Sharon Jones!" is sure to earn the group a whole new legion of fans.
Due to an error, we had to postpone a review of "Little Men." Check back next week for that.