WANT ANOTHER documentary about a musician overcoming great adversity to achieve glittering critical and modest commercial success? Possibly not, but you should make room in your callous heart for director Barbara Kopple’s Miss Sharon Jones! The titular subject is a powerful vocalist who merits your respect and attention, regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of her band the Dap-Kings’ tried-and-true R&B, soul, and funk.
Born in South Carolina to a mother acquainted with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, Sharon Jones took a long time to get her m sic career going, not releasing her first record until she was 40. But she made up for lost time by cutting several high-quality, pitch-perfect releases and proving herself to be a galvanizing live performer, inspiring James Brown comparisons. Once you see her onstage, you realize this is not hyperbole.
The film focuses on Jones’ 2013 battle with pancreatic cancer and her subsequent recovery—and then another bout with cancer and another comeback. The first illness hit Jones as she and the Dap-Kings were preparing to tour behind their Give the People What They Want LP, and the movie chronicles in sometimes painful but necessary detail the damage wrought by cancer and chemotherapy. We see Jones getting her head shaved, going in for CT scans, and drinking healthy smoothies. (Spoiler alert: We also witness her relaxing by fishing and smoking cigars. Who knew?)
After touring and recording relentlessly for almost two decades, Jones found it hard to be inactive, and she also stressed over putting her bandmates in a financial bind by being sidelined. Thankfully, Jones had a steadfast support system of friends, managers, and bandmates who kept her spirits lifted even when climbing a flight of stairs felt like a marathon.
Miss Sharon Jones! also earns dramatic currency through Jones’ underdog status. In the 1980s, a major-label executive told her that she was too short, too dark-skinned, and not attractive enough to be a star. She ended up playing in a wedding band and working as a corrections officer before getting her big break by meeting Dap-Kings bassist Gabe Roth in the mid-1990s. Her robust voice and remarkable emotional expressiveness and range make you wonder how anyone could doubt her abilities, but racism and misogyny run deep in the entertainment industry.
Miss Sharon Jones! concludes with a cavalcade of feel-good sequences (appearances on the major late-night talk shows, sold-out gigs in which Jones returns to her old singing/dancing dynamo self, a Grammy nomination). Toward the end of the film, Jones sings in “Longer and Stronger”: “A woman like me can stand the test of time.” Truth.