When a film includes punctuation in its title, it’s a signal that you should pay attention. The exclamation adorning Miss Sharon Jones is no anomaly. The woman is a phenom worthy of exclamation. Often called the female James Brown, you’ll notice the similarities not just in the soulful tone of her voice, but in her tireless performance.
Sharon Jones didn’t find fame until middle age. Before then, she’d paid the bills with corrections work on Rikers Island. But then the music business started paying attention and audiences marveled at her powerful energy and her joyful performances. Touring with her band, the Dap-Kings, Jones’s career was taking off when she was suddenly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013. Director Barbara Kopple is with Jones during her treatment, and Miss Sharon Jones! is a testament not just to the music, but to the immense effort Jones goes through in order to make it.
It is difficult to see such a formidable, vibrant artist brought down by disease. Her energy onstage is unreal, and her positivity stays with her even as she languishes in bed with nothing but daytime talk show hosts to keep her company. This documentary focuses on faith and perseverance, but never fails to remind us of Sharon’s individuality, her humanity, and her quest to squeeze more out of life.
Great music is often tinged with mortality, and that’s where Miss Sharon Jones! distinguishes itself from the biopic documentary genre. This is not a rise to fame recounting, it’s more about facing down death with graciousness, gratitude, friends, and yes – music. Always music. It’s clearly Jones’ passion and her greatest motivator. But the people she plays it with and shares it with are just as important, perhaps even more so as her health fails and her recovery is rocky. There is a stark contrast between her life as a performer and that as a cancer patient, and the best parts of this film are found right in that crack, where Miss Jones is unafraid to be honest, and to share this journey with her fans just as she shares her music, and her best self on stage, where Jones is really, truly alive.
I am sad to report that although Miss Jones was well enough after the documentary to grace the stage and bring music to the people once again, her luck didn’t last. She has another good year before cancer struck again, and she performed whilst in the middle of chemo, drained on stage but still giving it her all.Coincidentally, she passed away on November 19th, the very day I sat down to watch and review this movie. This documentary makes it glaringly obvious how much she will be missed, and by how many.