The intro to Miss Sharon Jones, likely tacked on by the film’s distributor, announces a standard music bio-doc kind of film, complete with voice-over, performances and talking heads. It was enough to make me roll my eyes at the prospect of sitting through another paint-by-numbers film on an under appreciated musician.
Well, that intro was a deft bait-and-switch, as Miss Sharon Jones is anything but typical. A refreshing take on a genre that has seen growing abundance in recent years, the film bravely eschews focusing solely on the chronological rise to prominence of its subject in order to tell a story more about death and friendship than music and fame.
The Simple Things
This is not to say that her career as a performer and public figure are ignored. We still follow Sharon back to her roots in Augusta, Georgia. We still get the origin of her band, the Dap-Kings, and their instrumentality in building the new-soul stalwart label Daptone Records. We’re still witness to the virulent force of the group’s live performances.
But after all that, our focus is turned to Sharon in recovery in Sharon Springs, NY, discussing her daily television routine. The contrast between these phases of her life is stark, but the film’s brilliance lies in giving just as much credence, if not more so, to these quite moments as it does to her professional life.
While you might think Miss Sharon Jones would hang its hat on performances from the “female James Brown” (a term thrust upon energetic soul singers since the man himself started promoting his protege Marva Whitney thusly), the backbone of the film is Jones in her non-stage life.
Battling pancreatic cancer, documentary all-star Barbara Kopple follows Sharon through uncertain times, on the precipice of a new album but facing a future shrouded in fog. In the face of such an ambivalent future, her positive nature is infectious and one finds it impossible not to adore her in her simpler moments, such as when she serenades a pair of goats or enjoys her favorite sandwich.
It is through these instances of beautiful mundanity that the viewer is able to connect with someone who on stage appears larger than life.
The World on Her Shoulders
She is almost always surrounded by friends and loved ones, and her spirit and charisma act as an anchor around which all sorts of people are drawn. Yet despite the well-wishing, these gatherings are not always touchy-feely.
As Sharon and others in the film note on several occasions, there are a number of people in her orbit that rely on her vitality to sustain their livelihoods. If Sharon were to succumb to her illness, her bandmates would be out of a job and her label would find themselves in dire straits. Thus, the motivations of some, such as her manager Alex Kadvan, are called into question, causing some moments of consternation.
Still, Jones is acutely aware of this, and expresses eagerness to to get back on stage to get food back in her band’s many mouths, all the while recuperating in suburban New York. This one scene showcases the heart of what makes Miss Sharon Jones so compelling; burning with passion and music on the inside, but limited by the realities of her body to act on those feelings.
The struggle between wishes and actuality is something tow which we can all relate, but to see it painted so vividly and thrust upon such an unwitting canvas really drives the sentiment home.
A Feel Good Brush With Death
Yet throughout the film optimism persists; like a Hollywood blockbuster you feel almost certain that good will prevail at the end of the day. There’s just something about Jones’ character and verve that makes her seem so indomitable, despite the odds associated with her particular disease, that it’s hard to imagine her body anything but. When we see Sharon enjoying a cigar while fishing, it’s not a point of concern, but rather confirmation that everything’s going to be alright.
Miss Sharon Jones, unlike most music bio docs, is a film about small moments, not lifetimes. Whether she’s silently having her braids sheared off in anticipation of chemotherapy, or giving everything she has to a performance at church on Sunday in the midst of treatment, Kopple seeks to reveal all that makes up Sharon Jones not by dwelling on performances on Ellen or interviews with famous friends, but rather by reveling in the minutiae of her life to paint a more complete and relatable portrait.
The film doesn’t waste time dotting on how she rose to stardom, it’s self evident in her talent. This is someone who claims that when she sings she has no worries in the world, and that pain and death do not exist; through the graciousness of the Kopple‘s lens, if only for a brisk 90 minutes, the viewer can feel the same.
What’s most important to you in music documentaries?
Miss Sharon Jones! comes out today, 7/29, in NYC, with a wider US release following in August.
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