“Miss Sharon Jones?” Though the actual title for the soul singer’s soul-bearing docu-portrait ends with an emphatic, life-affirming exclamation point, audiences could be forgiven for phrasing it as a question instead: Just who is this tiny musical dynamo, who finds the energy not only to thrash and shimmy like a pint-sized Tina Turner on-stage but also to battle it out with pancreatic cancer behind the scenes — and more importantly, why haven’t we heard of her before?
For those who know Jones’ work as the just-shy-of-five-foot frontwoman for Brooklyn-based funk ensemble the Dap-Kings, director Barbara Kopple’s latest femme-powerment film anthem will be a delight. And for the many who don’t, the discovery proves an even greater pleasure, offering an intimate glimpse at the fighting spirit that defines one of America’s great unsung rhythm artists.
Actually, “diva” is the term Jones seems to get most, though the label hardly seems appropriate in this context. Not only has the singer never scored the sort of hit that would have made her a household name, but during Kopple’s period of observation, she puts the attitude aside, laid low and humbled by an intensive chemotherapy routine. The director, who similarly profiled the Dixie Chicks during the touchiest three years of their career for the film “Shut Up and Sing,” hooks up with Jones in 2013, just as she’s receiving the worst news in what has hardly been an easy life.
The documentary offers a few sidelong glimpses into that past as Jones returns to hometown (North) Augusta, S.C., where both she and soul brother James Brown were born. She remembers how a local shopkeeper trained his pet parrot to insult “colored” patrons (“N—s stealin’,” the bird would squawk whenever she entered the store), suggesting some of her earliest brushes with a racist institution that later considered her “too dark, too short” to succeed — when all she really wanted was to buy her mom a decent place to live.
These are fascinating details, though Kopple — a two-time Oscar winner — didn’t build her reputation making “Behind the Music”-style career surveys. Her brand of nonfiction filmmaking doesn’t dwell in the past or rely on B-roll, privileging instead human stories in the here and now — and what Jones is going through here and now is stage two pancreatic cancer.
Later on, Jones will have enough perspective to observe that she separated her musical self from her sick/personal self during her treatment. That much is perfectly clear to both Kopple and audiences, who might have bought their tickets expecting a quasi-concert film, but quickly come to realize they’re watching a cancer survival story — an entirely different genre of film, and one that can be far more emotionally draining (or uplifting, as Julien Temple’s “The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson” so recently demonstrated).
But this isn’t just any cancer survival story. It’s the story of how a personality as strong and spiritual as Jones’ deals with the disease. Kopple captures the tears as a hairdresser clips her braids and shaves her head pre-chemo — a painful de-feminization process, rendered doubly powerful for any who have seen the Oscar-nominated short, “Mondays at Racine.” She’s at Jones’ side for the torturous routine of green-sludge detox shakes and clinic visits — a tough adjustment for a woman accustomed to having the freedom to eat pork chops and the energy to dance for hours. (It’s not the same without having long hair to toss around, she admits.)
One can’t help but feel inspired by both Jones’ sparkplug attitude and the gentle way those around her respond to her needs. As if cancer weren’t adversary enough during this time, there remains that neglected musical self to contend with. We see a severely weakened Jones rehearsing her next “Give the People What They Want” album with the Dap-Kings, then struggling to remember the lyrics to her new songs when she finally feels well enough to go back on stage — now joined by a pair of Dappettes.
It’s a relatively upbeat place to leave the story (literally, “what the people want”), but hardly the end of it: At the Toronto Film Festival, Jones delivered the bad news that the cancer was back — and the fight continues. Jones’ music will always be her legacy, but thanks to Kopple’s portrait, we got a chance to see her soul.