We and Miss Jones: Barbara Kopple documents the life of soul survivor Sharon Jones

Movies Features

How about a big round of applause for a terrific feel-good doc, a really feel-good doc about cancer, about recurring cancer, but a doc that is genuinely entertaining and inspiring? Such is a paradoxical but fitting introduction to Miss Sharon Jones!, from two-time Oscar-winner (Harlan County, U.S.A. and American Dream) Barbara Kopple, the acclaimed director of innumerable other docs, fiction narratives and commercial spots.

The not-so-secret sauce in this latest and electrifying Kopple effort is her subject—Grammy-nominated music powerhouse Sharon Jones herself, a pint-size (4’11”) funk/soul singer and bundle of charisma and talent who looms large and impressive on the big screen.

The doc primarily follows Jones over months from late 2013 and into 2014 as her career peaks and an album is imminent. She doesn’t just take the stage; she seizes it. With an unwavering and undeniable love of performing, this dynamo is no mere energizer bunny hopping continents on the pop-music circuit (Jones is currently in the midst of a world tour). We see, in fact, why she’s called “the Female James Brown.”

Kopple catches her touring with her 11-man, Grammy-nominated, Brooklyn-based R&B group Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, with support from backup singers The Dapettes, and recording for her Daptone label in their funky Bushwick studio (no, not the Dap-house…yet).

Jones is revealed as a natural-born entertainer with a winning attitude who loves to perform. In other words, she’s a walking, talking, singing primer for what it takes to become a star. As a civilian, she impresses as down-to-earth, funny, caring and smart.

So much for the good news. Interwoven into the doc is that thread that follows Jones as she learns of her cancer diagnosis (life-threatening stage 2 pancreatic cancer), undergoes chemo treatments, tries on wigs to hide the hair loss, and recuperates in upstate New York at the rural home of best pal Megan, a holistic nutritionist and caregiver. The ordeal puts her career on hold for many months.

At the same time, Jones also battles to keep her band together, the 11 mostly white musicians who have been a loyal and devoted bunch through their years with her. It’s not an easy time for the Dap-Kings: Besides not making music, there’s that annoying matter of not making money.

Jones is stubborn and determined, but so is the cancer, and Kopple, who directed and co-produced the doc through her New York-based Cabin Creek Films with production partner David Cassidy, records the comingling dramas, twists and triumphs. And in the tradition of many satisfying films, Miss Sharon Jones! delivers a dazzling, packed concert finale (at Manhattan’s stately Beacon Theatre) that is not without its own jolts of entertainment and suspense.

Kopple got onboard the film in 2013 when, she explains, “several VH1 guys called me about maybe doing a doc about Sharon. [Before that call] the project got its initial spark when [Jones’ manager] Alex [Kavden] made an impassioned suggestion [to the network] and VH1 came to me. I didn’t know much about her then, but immediately started my research and I now consider her a close friend.”

Kopple knew she landed the job when she heard the words “Just come!” and was told where shooting would begin. It was and is a profoundly dramatic and surprising first encounter for both Kopple and viewers, as both meet Jones when her hair is being cut (shorn, really) as a necessary early stop for the cancer journey ahead.

Yet, for Kopple, this was not the film’s most challenging scene. The nail-biter comes late in the doc, when, she explains, “The most extraordinary thing for me and this took my breath away was Sharon playing the Beacon. This was her comeback for the first time after eight months of chemotherapy and we were unsure of what would happen.” Reminded that Jones onstage initially forgets her words, Kopple says “she forgot them in rehearsal too. And during the show it was clear she was out of breath. But she was amazing and told the audience, ‘I’m testing things out with you,’ and in that performance in spite of its shaky moments she just killed it; she was so good. And so courageous.”

Like many black performers, Jones had no easy beginnings. Born into a poor Augusta, Georgia family, she became the first to go to college. As a singer/performer, she is self-taught and sang gospel in her hometown church when she was young.

On a personal level, she’s genuine, outspoken and fearless. But perhaps what most impresses is how Jones just does not let her ongoing cancer battle and chemotherapy get her down or rob her of hope and drive.

The doc follows Jones for many months as she moves around several key locations in her unexpected new dual life as performer and patient: the Cooperstown, New York home where she recuperates; the “back to the hustle and bustle,” as she calls it, of Augusta, where her beloved family lives; hospitals and doctor offices; recording sessions; performance stages.

Asked for some insights into Jones’ success, especially with those cancer intrusions, Kopple offers. “I think much of it [the determination to keep fighting and survive] has to do with the fact that she just loves singing; everyone likes to make a living and she does that by doing something she really loves to do. She just did a commercial for Lincoln and keeps busy like this—singing her heart out and touring. It helps keep her healthy and strong.” Additionally, Jones, who manages those strenuous James Brown-like stage antics, pays regular visits to her gym.

And, continues Kopple, “Her attitude! She’s so much fun to be with! What she’s all about is resilience and a celebration of life. I can’t say enough about her. She speaks her mind and she’ll let you know whatever.”

Kopple suggests the sources of her courage and strength as she fights her illness: “I believe this comes from her great, happy family and from religion, which is from within and a big part of her strength. And there are her many friendships with people like Megan, her band and certainly Alex [her manager],” says Kopple. “And the faith she has in herself counts for so much.”

Reminded that Jones is seen only once in the film losing it (she goes ballistic and verbally indelicate when dinner with the band is called off), Kopple simply responds, “She gets upset but puts it all out there.”

But was there a time when Kopple thought that cancer might get the upper hand in the struggle, when Jones might not make it? “No!” comes her instantaneous answer. “She was gonna make it! And all her doctors and nurses wanted her to make it.” But there’s a twist: “She’s still back and forth with cancer but she’s back touring!”

Beyond the moments in Miss Sharon Jones! when Jones is seen performing and touring, there are clips of a nifty animated Jones music-video and of her doing the talk shows (DeGeneres, O’Brien, Kimmel).

With so much going on for Jones professionally, one would expect a life, that cancer battle notwithstanding, more manifest with the material rewards fame bestows. But these are hardly her priority. As she proclaims in the doc, all she wants is “to do good music and be recognized.”

And as Kopple knows so well, having navigated the pop-music seas for decades through many of her documentaries (several Woodstock docs, No Nukes, the acclaimed Dixie Chicks doc Shut Up and Sing, among others), so much has changed in the business over the decades, including the storied money that flowed and which digital brought off-line.

Jones may not bask in material success, but she is certainly “dappy,” which prompts the question of where the heck “dap” come from, the Daptone label, the Dap-Kings band, the backup girl group The Dapettes. Kopple is unsure but guesses that “dap” might be some kind of reference to soul music.

She does enlighten that The Dapettes are also longtime friends of Jones’ and have already done their own album. And in the doc, one Dapette amusingly chats about her early, pre-Dapette experience as a phone-sex worker playing a dominatrix.

Jones came from a poor but loving family and was the first to go to college. She has been performing as an artist for a while, but was kept in the wings by a music industry that branded her, as she put it, “too short, too black, too fat.” After decades of working odd jobs—from corrections officer to wedding singer—she had a middle-aged breakthrough after joining forces with The Dap-Kings.

In 2013, on the eve of the release of the much-anticipated album Give the People What They Want, which went on to win a 2014 Grammy nomination, she noticed symptoms of yellow eyes and getting thinner, and the life-threatening diagnosis and lengthy ordeal followed. Late in the doc comes a 2015 dispatch from this battlefront.

Kopple’s big breakthrough came with her 1991 Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A, since named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and designated an American film classic. Kopple entered the business when she lucked into a job with documentary filmmaking legends Albert and David Maysles. Her first job in 1970 had her schlepping film magazines (not the paper kind but those pre-digital camera attachment artifacts loaded with raw stock) for Al Maysles on Gimme Shelter and providing brother David with the quarter-inch tape he needed for sound. “Al became my mentor,” says Kopple. “He always had my back.”

She broke through on her own by first working sound, and what followed was a rich filmmaking career packed with docs largely covering music, gun violence, addiction, psychological trauma and labor conflicts.

Kopple is currently editing a YouTube Red feature-length doc about Internet transgender sensation Gigi Gorgeous, which will cover her life from being born a he, wanting to become a she, and Gigi finally taking over. 

With Miss Sharon Jones! a combination of music and trauma, how might it stand apart for Kopple personally? “What she [Jones] has done for me is so inspiring—her passion, her endurance. And even in the toughest of times, she just keeps moving forward and opening up her life to me. I talk to her almost every other day. She is a woman who is so full of hope and a desire for life.”

With so powerful a voice and presence, Jones is no mere warbler but certainly a warrior on the cancer front. Once word gets out about Miss Sharon Jones! and Jones herself (which it will), audiences will want to meet Miss Sharon Jones, whether on the big screen which she so fully occupies or on smaller screens which she’ll inflate with her dynamic presence. Starz Digital releases the doc theatrically on July 29 and will follow with digital, on-demand and home-video releases this fall. And there are also her “dappy” albums to spin.