“And the night when my mother died, and the band was there. Then when we went on stage and that music is out there. I have no worries in the world. I don’t think about anything, any pain. Sure, there’s death, but people come to see us. And the show must go on.”
Miss Sharon Jones! follows soul singer Jones through her diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from pancreatic cancer, all while continuing to record and perform when possible. Directed by Barbara Kopple, the documentary spans a year in Jones’ life, one in which she fights to continue a career she’s worked towards her whole life.
Jones is an exceptionally fascinating subject. She’s an exuberant presence, both on stage and off, and she’s remarkably down to earth. She and her band The Dap-Kings, along with backup singers, the Dap-ettes, are working musicians who’ve been toiling away for years in the music business and they take nothing for granted. Their success has come slowly, but steadily, but their talent is undeniable. Playing soul and funk music reminiscent of Jones’ idol, James Brown, and other ‘60s greats such as Ike and Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and the Motown and Stax luminaries of the time, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings never sound like a throwback act.
In one scene, Jones attends a church service, though she admits she doesn’t attend regularly, and it communicates everything you need to know about her. It’s an amazing, ebullient performance in which she sings, wails, dances, and eventually ends when she sits down exhausted and out of breath. She may be in the midst of receiving chemotherapy, but she’s incapable of holding back. Indeed, the commitment that she gives to every performance is obvious; it’s also clearly an integral part of what makes the band such a success, particularly as a live act. If Jones brings such full immersion and energy to a small church performance, her time in front of a live music audience of fans is extraordinary.
Part of what makes Miss Sharon Jones! such a pleasure to watch is the pure delight that Jones takes in every milestone the band achieves. Outselling previous releases and making television appearances are always exciting. Jones never appears jaded or cynical about her success. One only has to see the happiness she exudes upon being asked to appear on Ellen and to dance alongside DeGeneres to understand that Jones continued to enjoy every new breakthrough in her career.
One of the threads that runs through the documentary is the closeness of the band. They’ve been working together and struggling for so long that they’re bonded to one another like family. They argue and laugh in familiar, intimate ways that speak to their long relationships and their commitment to one another. It’s a theme that crops up over and over but is made bittersweet when much of it revolves around Jones’ illness. Manager Alex Kadva, is especially close to Jones and their connection is clear when he’s there to listen to test results and prognoses alongside Jones.
In addition to Kadvan, seeing Jones interact with her bandmates, such as Gabriel Roth, bandleader and principal songwriter, Fernando Velez (in a charming deleted scene at his wedding), and David Guy, in a final performance with the Dap-Kings before joining The Roots’ Tonight Show band, is a joy. The affection is always obvious, even when they fight and tease one another. Apart from her bandmates, Jones’s relationships with Austen Holman, her assistant manager, and friend and nutritionist, Megan Holken offer revealing moments in the documentary. Holman and Holken’s emotional responses to Jones’ battle with cancer create some of the more vulnerable moments in the film.
Jones’ recent death has cast a particularly poignant light on Miss Sharon Jones! and its subject. Moments that were already affecting—doctor’s visits, sweet moments with the band, and worries about getting ready to perform again—take on an extra heartbreaking quality. Perhaps none more so than when Jones herself voices her own fears and doubts about her illness. Listening to her talk about how hard and long she’s worked for the success she’s finally earned, it seems especially cruel that her life would be cut short when she had so much more to share.
Kopple’s documentary accomplishes a great deal in shining a light on such a dynamic figure at such a difficult time. That the story ultimately ended so tragically only speaks to the power of Jones’s voice and the joy she took in achieving her dreams.
R.I.P., Miss Jones.