It hasn’t come easy for Sharon Jones. Born, like James Brown, in Augusta, Georgia and raised in Brooklyn, Jones knew from an early age she wanted to be a singer. And though anyone who hears her belt even a few notes knows she was born to sing, it took decades longer than she hoped to turn that passion into a career. Dismissed as “too dark [and] too short to be a music star” when she attempted to get signed in the 1980s, Jones instead made a living through a variety of other professions, including a time working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island. For a long stretch, it seemed like her voice would remain unheard by most of the world.
The ’90s changed that. After singing back-up on an album by cult soul star Lee Fields, Jones fell in with some young, Brooklyn-based R&B nerds who wanted to make the sort of music they loved — and which no one else seemed to be making. In Jones they found a singer capable of the intensity and funkiness of Brown and the stirring emotional range of Irma Thomas. She was, and is, in short, the real deal. This eventually led to Daptone Records, a soul revival label for which Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings became the crown jewel, earning acclaim and a growing following via albums like 2007’s I Learned the Hard Way and 2014’s Give the People What They Want.
But, as Barbara Kopple’s intimate new documentary proves, Jones’ is a Cinderella story that may not have a happy ending. Miss Sharon Jones! recounts its subject’s life story as it follows her through a rough patch. As she prepares for the release of Give the People What They Want, she also undergoes chemo for pancreatic cancer. A director whose career goes back to the landmark ’70s doc Harlan County, USA, Kopple is skilled both at getting close to her subject without seeming intrusive and letting careful editing tell the story. To cut from Jones dominating the stage in pre-cancer footage to scenes of her sitting quietly as she undergoes chemo and talking over her situation with her doctors says as much as any interview. On stage, she’s a star. At the hospital, she’s as fragile as any other patient looking at an unsure future.
Miss Sharon Jones! benefits from Jones’ willingness to let Kopple keep filming no matter what. In one scene, she sings in church and becomes her indomitable former self. Then she sits down, winded and looking unsure what she’s done. She looks vulnerable and heartbroken shaving her head and, later, unapologetic as she takes the stage without a wig. She scraps with band members not over creative differences, but because they threaten to bail on a planned dinner. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear how much Jones and the Dap-Kings depend on each other. She has a support system of friends, but they’re the closest she seems to have to family. At one point, a musician reveals he’s had trouble securing financing for a home because of Jones’ cancer diagnosis.
All of which means there are a lot of stories unfolding at once in the doc: Jones’ unusual, later-than-expected success, her battle with cancer, and the usual trials that come with being a working musician in 2016, when the hard work of touring, not hit records, ensures financial security. Unavoidably, Miss Sharon Jones! brings none of those stories to a conclusion. She recovers and hits the road, but the possibility of cancer recurring hangs over what ought to be a victory tour. And, though this doesn’t make it into the film, Jones has since revealed she’s fighting cancer again, news that confirms the triumphant concert footage that concludes the film as part of a continuing fight she’s staging one song at a time. She’s also, as ever, still out on the road. Her health and success may be hard-won and the odds against her. But they always have been, and that hasn’t stopped her yet.
Miss Sharon Jones! opens in select theaters this Friday, July 29, before rolling out across the country.