If this movie boosts Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings into well-paid entertainers with a major record deal, I salute filmmaker Barbara Kopple for being the facilitator.
By Gerald Peary
Years ago, the singing career of Sharon Jones was derailed, almost ended, when a smug Sony executive told her she’d never succeed: she was too short, fat, and way too black. Her mom strived to save the day, trying to convince Sharon that she was “black and beautiful”; but it was only when she met r&b king James Brown that the empowering message actually stuck. So black was OK, and being short turned out to be manageable, because nobody watching Jones storm about a stage could believe she was only 4 feet 11. As for being fat, that only changed when she got pancreatic cancer. Filmmaker Barbara Kopple puts the cancer up front in her feature documentary, Miss Sharon Jones! Far more than Jones’s singing, that’s what the film is about: how, in the year 2013, Jones fought hard and strong through a debilitating regime of chemotherapy so she could get back to live performing.
How great a chanteuse is Sharon Jones? I’m hardly a music critic, yet I surmise that, from seeing this film and from owning one of her albums, she’s not a major talent but rather an appealing minor one. At her finest moments, she channels Aretha Franklin doing r&b, and she can also shimmer over to Stax-style Memphis funk or slip into smooth Motown soul. But to me, she always sounds like a commendable cover artist. Jones gets extra points by being so frisky and energetic on stage and by being backed by The Dap-Kings, her so solid, loyal, disciplined band. Anyway, who ultimately cares? Jones and the Dap-Kings have absolutely paid those dreary dues with years and years of touring, with manufacturing a bunch of low-tech albums in their slummy Brooklyn studio, and having little revenue or security for all of that. If this movie boosts Jones and the Dap-Kings into well-paid entertainers with a major record deal, I salute filmmaker Kopple for being the facilitator. She’s always behind the camera, yet Kopple’s rooting for Jones is palpable.
Jones’s battle with cancer is certainly worthy to be at the center of the film, and we see the protagonist in an array of moods dealing with her illness: humorous, irritable, hopeful, needy, independent. We watch her, a Southern girl raised on ham hocks, valiantly drinking down a mammoth health food shake with grains and spirulina. And not gagging. We are privy to an amazing moment when Jones veers away from her ascetic diet and literally attacks a pork sandwich. Flinging on barbecue sauce, she is positively orgasmic! That’s my favorite scene in the documentary. Another good one is when Jones, doing a guest turn crooning in a black church, suddenly gets the spirit and seems to dance the Funky Chicken with the Lord.
Miss Sharon Jones! is just a good film, not a great one. The music is adequate, but we could have used a few uninterrupted numbers. And there are indications that Jones has a mighty temper—get out of her way!—but Kopple tempers her portrait so that we never see Jones unleashed. The film’s biggest negative is that we learn absolutely nothing of Jones’s private life when it’s not about cancer. We never meet her brothers and sisters. We never meet any lovers, male or female, past or present, and none are alluded to. If such privacy was a mandate for Jones’s cooperation, that’s too bad. Where this funky r&b artist gets her abundant soul remains a mystery.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.