Sharon Jones, who died Nov. 18, “was one of the most phenomenal human beings I’ve ever met,” said filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who spent nearly three years with the powerhouse singer for the recent documentary “Miss Sharon Jones!”
Film workers are nomads, creating intense working relationships for a few months, then moving to the next project and the next group of co-workers. But working with Jones — who is shown in the film rehearsing and performing while battling pancreatic cancer — offered a different kind of experience for Kopple.
“She had incredible strength. She got that from her mother, and she drew strength from her church, her bandmates, her family and fans. Fighting a personal battle wasn’t going to get her down,” Kopple told Variety just a few days after Jones’ death.
The idea for the film began with Alex Kadvan, Jones’ manager; she was admired by many in the industry, he told Variety, “but so many other people didn’t know who she was. I wanted to figure out a way to get her story out there. But then she got sick. She liked the idea of a documentary; even when she got sick, she was open to having people around her, to follow her story.”
Kadvan says, “That disease was a microcosm of her lifelong struggle for success — with challenges from her upbringing, the music industry and everything else. But she always thrived and succeeded.”
Early in her career, Jones was told by one music executive that she was too black, too fat and too short. She felt sad for a moment, “But then she wore that insult, almost like a badge of honor,” said Kopple (who is a two-time Oscar winner).
Jones spent much of her career as a corrections officer at Rikers Island and a security guard. But eventually she put music on the front burner and saw the release of her first album at age 40. She was nominated for her first Grammy in 2015. She was the frontwoman for a group of 11: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings also included eight musicians and two backup singers, Saundra and Starr, known as the Dapettes.
Jones first saw the documentary at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. “She was hooting and howling and crying,” said Kopple. “She was so happy and laughing.”
There was one scene she would have removed, if given the chance: her anger with the band members for not planning to spend Thanksgiving together. The fellow musicians were both family and friends to Jones; they could finish each other’s sentences and all looked out for each other, said Kopple. In later stages, the band would slow things down and play musical riffs until Sharon could catch her breath.
Megan Holken, a longtime friend who is shown in the film helping take care of the singer, told Variety, “She loved so many people and took care of so many people — more than we realized; she was financing this person, getting groceries for that person. She was spectacular.”
Jones was often described as a leader in the soul revival movement, but Kadvan said she bristled at that, saying “I’m not retro! I’m current, I’m alive now!”
When she was in the hospital, Jones decreed, “Don’t send anyone in this room who will have pity on me.” Kopple said, “Her life was about resilience and celebration. Every time she was on stage, it was a celebration. She didn’t want to give that up.”
Kopple stops herself: “It’s so odd to talk about her in the past tense. I can’t believe she’s not here any more. She was so vibrant.”
Kadvan said that when the cancer recurred, “Most people would have thrown in the towel. But she said, ‘No, I want to go to work, every day.’ And in all that time, we only cancelled one show. She was tough and a fighter. She was amazing.”