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.