While watching Miss Sharon Jones!, you might come to think that the film’s title is missing a couple of exclamation points. It’s partly because of the orally punctuated introductions provided by one member of her soul/R&B band, The Dap-Kings. (“Please welcome… Miss! Sharon! Jones!”) But mostly it’s because Jones is a firecracker who, though only 4-feet-11, consistently gives outsized performances whether she’s onstage or just puttin’ it on for friends.
Frankly, unless you’re a fan, her act gets to be a bit much—Jones has certainly earned her popular nom de funk, “the female James Brown.” In front of an audience, she makes you feel like you’ve entered a church. And when in church, she she makes you feel like you’ve entered a world unknown to man. She extends her admittedly gorgeous, praiseful rendition of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” into a veritable speaking-in-tongues display of manic testifying that had at least one fellow churchgoer looking on (and backing up) in disbelief. It might have left even Jesus wishing she’d tone it down a notch.
Not that Jones doesn’t have reason to be jubilant. Director Barbara Kopple (Shut Up & Sing) follows the singer starting in 2013, after she’d received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer—a cancer that’s typical terminal. We see her getting her head shaved; we see her sitting in chemo. She tells her medical attendants, “Google me,” so they can witness that she’s not the tired, sick woman they usually see before them. One doctor who had seen a video of a Dap-Kings performance mentioned that Jones was “a big woman.” Her response: “I carry myself tall.”
And she does. Her personality is so big, it’s shocking when you see the petite woman standing next to a 6-foot giant. She laughs about her smooth pate and jokes about her restricted diet with a nutritionist, who also happens to be the friend who invited Jones to her home for months to heal. In the spacious, quiet house, Jones doesn’t let music in, because it’s something she associates with health and happiness. Instead, she embraces TV, rattling off her 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule. (“The View… you gotta watch The View.”)
But because the Dap-Kings were about to release an album and go on tour when Jones got sick, music must barge into her quiet time when the postponed tour gets near. It’s heart-swelling to see the concern her fellow bandmates and management show her, and uncomfortable when a few of them admit that although they certainly care about Jones’ well-being, they also need money. She gets frustrated when she can’t bring it like she used to. Any chronically ill viewer will tear up when watching the group’s push-pull of “You must” and “I can’t.”
With the Big C looming, Kopple gives short shrift to Jones’ rise, which was 30 years in the making. Told she was “too dark” and “too short,” among other things, to make it in show business, Jones spent half her adulthood working as a corrections officer and wedding-band singer. Her late-in-life success likely fueled her fight against the body that turned against her: I waited all this time to get onstage, and I’m not getting off of it anytime soon. The director sprinkles bits of the band’s performance throughout the doc—the better to avoid being a downer—and during one spotlight moment, Jones sings/yells: “And I’m gonna keep on… keep on shoutin’.” For better or worse, you know that’s right.
Miss Sharon Jones! opens today at Landmark E Street Cinema.