Miss Sharon Jones! (2016; Barbara Kopple)
By Daniel Barnes
The 1960s soul revival band Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings built a worldwide reputation primarily on their electric live shows, gaining a devoted following without ever recording a hit song. At the center of the Dap-Kings sound and stage is Jones, a powerhouse belter once labeled by a Sony rep as “too fat, too black, too short, too old” for stardom, a tornado onstage and an Ellen-binging sweetheart offstage.
But in June 2013, just as the band was finishing work on their 2014 album Give the People What They Want, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which required extremely invasive surgery and six months of chemotherapy. Kopple’s intensely personal documentary chronicles Jones’ treatment and long recovery, and while the filmmaking is fairly conventional on a formal level, Miss Sharon Jones! feels just as intimately embedded with its subject as Kopple’s 1976 calling card Harlan County U.S.A.
Kopple knows her way around the musical documentary – she followed Woody Allen’s band around Europe in Wild Man Blues and directed the 2006 Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up & Sing – and it helps that the Augusta, Georgia-born Jones makes for such a thoroughly likable subject. Kopple understands that any smart and compassionate audience will be engaged by Jones, no matter what she does. Jones is such an unstoppable dynamo that it seems impossible anything could ever get in her way, not even cancer.