This summer, Sharon Jones turned 60-years-old, and a new documentary — which had its Florida debut with a two screening outing last night in Tampa — shows that she knows she’s lucky to have made it this far. Miss Sharon Jones!, directed by Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple, chronicles a year in Jones’ life spent battling stage two pancreatic cancer.
The opening sequences feature triumphant footage of Jones and her band The Dap-Kings in 2010 slaying crowds as they rose in popularity on the heels of their own baffling grasp of old soul music and Jones’ mighty vocals, which belie her 4-foot-11 stature. There are also more gut-wrenching pictures like Jones in a barber shop getting her braids cut and head shaved after learning her diagnosis.
It touches on some of the struggles Jones endured as she became the first in her family to graduate high school and go to college. Parts of it are dark, like the scenes where Jones describes an ice cream shop’s parrot, who was allegedly trained to spit racist remarks, or the worms coming out of the candy a shop owner gave the little black kids (it was the 1960’s, after all). There are needles, blood tests, lots of bad news, and defeats. Jones’ day manager Austen Holman — who is steely through most of the flick — even breaks down in a scene where she says the tears she’s fighting and wiping away with a sweater must be because “it’s all starting to hit me now.”
Still, the 90-minutes are mostly warm. There’s old videotape from Jones’ time as a wedding singer. She looks like the nicest Rikers Island corrections officer in some of the photos, and even through all the unimaginable difficulty that is battling cancer, Jones retains an almost effortless sense of humor and lightheartedness, always cracking little jokes, smiling, and talking to those close to her as well as the other patients at her treatment center. At one point in the film, as she starts to gain more strength and get back to making music with The Dap-Kings, Jones asks Holman to be quiet while she enjoys her pickle (“it’s the right pickle!”) and a barbeque sandwich.
Yes, the film tackles the idea of death, but overall it is a reminder to live.
“I never wanted to be famous,” Jones explains at one point during the many interviews. “I just want to sing, use my voice, this gift.”
Thankfully, Kopple is dutiful in her representation of the Dap-Kings. She shows footage from the days Bosco Mann (Daptone Records founder/bass player/producer/songwriter also known as Gabriel Roth) and Jones spent wiring the electricity — and almost collapsing the ceiling — at the 14-year-old label’s Bushwick, New York headquarters. It celebrates trumpet player David Guy’s last run of shows before joining the house band at The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and even takes a brief, yet candid, look at guitarist Binky Griptite’s divorce and financial struggles, which all unfolded as his friend battled cancer. Jones is well aware that her health and talent are a big reason these touring musicians can put food on the table.
Could the film have taken a deeper look at what it really costs a band like The Dap-Kings to help their singer battle pancreatic cancer? Sure. A 2012 study shows it running roughly $65,000 before taking into account all the variables across different treatments for patients, but breaking down the numbers isn’t the point of Miss Sharon Jones!. The point of it is to showcase the humanity of the woman and her band as they do the only thing the bones in their bodies want them to do — make music.
Above all it nonchalantly finds the Dap-Kings, under the direction of Roth and manager Alex Kadvan, working, making new music almost non-stop while Jones resiliently battled through the ups and downs chemotherapy.
The toils and troubles pay off too when the band & Jones return to the stage for a show at New York’s Beacon Theater in February 2014. Jones can be seen asking Holman for some time alone, and takes full time to gather her nerves before finally stepping into the spotlight. Kopple leads with a sequence where Jones forgets the lyrics to her song.
“I’m gonna do that a few times,” she says unashamedly.
The remaining of the film is where the triumph is. Jones is magnificent and majestic in her gold dress. Her face is still mostly bald, and she becomes winded more than once. She doles out thanks to her caretakers as well as her oncologist, Dr. James Leonardo. A few around him grow emotional as Jones acknowledges how much hope he gave her during the struggle. In these moments on stage, Jones is transformed, and for a moment we forget Sharon Jones the patient. We forget that we’ve just seen her dressed in jeans and a plain sweater, struggling to walk up the stairs, or eating carrots in a hospital bed.
In that moment, in the back of our minds thanks to the candid look at disease Kopple pieces together, there is a reminder that life does get low more often that we’d like. There’s a reminder that things like cancer, a lack of confidence, or a lack of people who believe in you are sometimes there to stand in the way. Like it or not, there is darkness everywhere. But when Jones opens her eyes there at the Beacon Theater and sees her fans (who she takes for their countless messages of “take your time” and “we’ll be here for you”), we’re shaken. We’re shaken because there is still room to believe that people can conquer all the fights and battles they wage, and relish in the tiny bites of victory, so as long as they’re relentlessly chasing their dreams and purpose in life.
The next Sunshine State screening of Miss Sharon Jones! is on Friday August 26 in Boca Raton. Miami gets to see it on September 9, and Orlando will screen it at The Enzian on October 17. Screening details are available here.