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Inspiring and Unsettling: Miss Sharon Jones!

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings kick off their delayed 2014 tour at the Beacon Theater in New York

By Jude Warne.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings are a seasoned, air-tight, top-notch funk-soul band. Via Jones’ musical talents and Bosco Man/Gabriel Roth’s analog recording and band leading genius, the group has managed to bring back the 60s funk and soul sound to our modern era, infusing it with a vibrant newness. They fill a unique void in today’s musical landscape and are uniquely devoted to their singer Sharon Jones; in fact, together as one, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings seem to operate as a big musical family, one in which egos are cast aside in order to achieve the best outcome for the band as a whole.

This is what makes Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple’s new documentary Miss Sharon Jones! a particularly difficult watch. Rather than the story of an individual facing hardship, or of a musical group fallen on hard times, Miss Sharon Jones! is the story of a family dealing with a crisis. In 2013, at the turning point for the band in terms of the manifestation of slowly mounted critical and commercial success, Jones was diagnosed with stage-two cancer. This understandably took over Jones’ life and thus that of her band, who was forced to put tour and record release plans on hold while Jones attempted to regain her good health. There are multiple scenes in Kopple’s film in which Alex Kadvan, the band’s manager, discusses with Jones how best to keep the band on its financial feet while Jones goes through chemotherapy treatment. Without performances, the Dap-Kings’ many members would be more or less without income. Kadvan and the band are clearly most concerned with Jones’ well-being, but the viewer cannot help but know that if Jones’ health does not improve, her bandmates will be fallen upon hard times and quickly. She bears an extra responsibility toward them in this way.

Miss Sharon Jones!, initially seeming to tell the basic story of soul singer Sharon Jones’ life and that of her incredible band the Dap-Kings – a story compelling enough on its own – is a film about a family dealing with its matriarch’s illness. The tale of Sharon Jones’ slow rise to artistic success and her eventual formation of the Dap-Kings band is a captivating one. Sharon and her band are one of the most impressive live bands working today, issuing forth a sound that is well-informed by the history of rock, funk, and soul. Jones’ voice and performative style are James-Brown-esque, irresistible, and full of vibrant talent impossible to deny. Sharon Jones’ personal history, her odd jobs and time spent working as a correctional officer and wedding singer, are fascinating. Her story is the familiar one of the underdog; she was told by others that she would never make it as a performer because of her appearance. But she did make it, albeit slightly later in life, releasing her first album at the age of forty. The Dap-Kings’ band formation tale, and how their studio production process is able to create such an authentic funk sound, are of course overshadowed in Miss Sharon Jones! by Jones’ diagnosis. This prohibits the audience from being able to bask in the musical talents of Jones and her band. Understandable, of course, but weighty.

In Kopple’s film it is encouraging to see Jones improve following her chemo treatments, and it is encouraging to see her lovely support system that begins with the Dap-Kings and extends as far out as a close friend of hers, who insists on caring for Jones in a gorgeous countryside locale while she recuperates. It is encouraging to witness Jones’ personal strength and eternal down-to-earthness on screen even while dealing with the physical and emotional burden of her illness. In fact, Jones almost seems to refuse self-pity and instead focuses solely on her band’s upcoming record release, Give the People What They Want. The album was nominated for a Best R&B album Grammy in 2014. Throughout her treatments she borders on chomping at the bit, wanting to be done with them so that she can move along with her music career. After she receives some good news about her treatment results, Jones breaks down, finally realizing how close to death she came. Her ability to focus on her art is truly inspiring.

Why does it seem that so often on the eve of a person’s biggest success yet, at a pivotal moment in her career, at a clear turning point toward the top, the person is presented with an additional and distracting personal challenge? This question lurks around throughout Miss Sharon Jones! and is rendered unanswerable via human reason, a most unsettling realization.

Jude Warne is the music columnist at Red Paint Hill Journal and a jazz critic at CMUSE. She has written numerous reviews for The Vinyl District, Live for Live Music, No Depression, Journal of Popular Music and Society, Film Matters, andSenses of Cinema. She earned her BA (Cinema Studies ’11) and MA (Humanities and Social Thought ’15) from New York University. Her Master’s Thesis, “Let the Broken Hearts Stand,” explored and examined the disappointed American characters in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Jude’s original teen fiction series is scheduled for publication in 2017 through Epic Press.

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