Miss Sharon Jones!

Documentary of perseverance

The only lull that occurs at a Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings concert is when Jones invites audience members onto the stage to dance with her. Most of the time, the chosen few will try too hard to find their 15 seconds of fame as they attempt to overshadow Jones with goofy, ill-advised dance moves. Jones may stand 4 feet 11 inches tall, but it’s impossible for anyone to overshadow her.

Jones gave up a music career at some point because “some record label told me I was too fat, too short, black, and old.”

Now 60 years old, Jones has the reputation for her never-ending energy. Whether she is shaking her hair, pumping her arms, or moving her feet a mile a minute, Jones never rests on stage. Backed by an eight-piece band and two backup singers, Jones is one of the most reputable soul and funk singers performing today.

In 2013, however, the group faced an uncertain future when Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Directed by two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple, the new documentary Miss Sharon Jones! chronicles Jones’s road to recovery, and the band’s struggle to survive without her.

The movie delves into Jones’s battle with cancer right away, with shots of Jones dancing on stage juxtaposed with her receiving chemotherapy treatments. For fans, it is difficult to see Jones—normally a ball of fire—listless and tranquil. Invited by a friend to stay with her in the New York countryside, Jones spends her days watching daytime talk television, far removed from her strenuous life on the road and in the studio.

Meanwhile, her bandmates hope for her recovery while trying not to think about “what if?” Touring is how most members of the band make money, and without Jones, some members struggle to stay afloat. The movie is at its most interesting when we see how many people rely on Jones—her family, her bandmates, and her manager—and how that love sometimes becomes a burden.

Scenes of treatment and recovery, while obviously necessary, bog the film down at times because there are perhaps two too many. Instead, Kopple could have chosen to explore a bit more about Jones’s background, which helps to paint a picture of her as a survivor as much as her battle with cancer.

Jones was hardly an overnight sensation, and took one of the more unusual paths to semi-stardom. She sang in the church choir and was in a wedding band, but found roadblocks on her way to becoming a full-time singer. As she sings in the song “I’m Still Here,” Jones gave up a music career at some point because “some record label told me I was too fat, too short, black, and old.”

Instead, she worked in jobs as a guard for an armored car, and as a corrections officer. All of this background—as well as the early struggles of the Dap-Kings—is mentioned in the movie, but even five more minutes of that backstory would have strengthened the movie’s theme of beating the odds.

Despite an underdeveloped narrative in a couple of places, the movie overall paints a compelling picture of Jones. Kopple already won the best documentary Academy Award for Harlan County, USA, in 1977 and American Dream in 1991, and Miss Sharon Jones! is the kind of underdog story that Academy voters are drawn to. The best-case scenario for Jones is that the movie nabs a nomination for best original song with “I’m Still Here,” and Jones and the Dap-Kings perform at the ceremony, bringing them in front of their largest live (televised) audience ever. Even without the Academy, the movie has already won acclaim at festivals across the United States, exposing more fans to Jones’s infectious energy and powerful voice. The film is just one more affirmation of Jones’s talent and perseverance. Even without awards, her show will go on.

3 out of 4 stars. Not rated, but would probably be PG, with a bit of language and a few intense scenes related to cancer treatments.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.