By Kate Hearst.
Renewed interest in black female singers sparked the release last year of two documentaries focused on voices of the Civil Rights movement: What Happened, Miss Simone? about the late soul singer and activist Nina Simone, and Mavis! featuring gospel singer Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers. In contrast, Barbara Kopple’s Miss Sharon Jones! (2016) focuses on the present-day R&B, funk and soul singer Sharon Jones and her band at the apex of their musical popularity, while facing their most difficult challenge. In the hands of Kopple, this documentary becomes a profound cinematic experience, with stories of crisis and resilience, and exuberant musical performances.
Barbara Kopple begins her film chronicling the career of Sharon Jones, an artist who didn’t release her first album until she was forty years old. The opening montage gives a glimpse of the firepower this woman and her band can pack onstage. In the 1980s, Jones was told by a music executive that she was “too old, too fat, too short, and too black” to become a recording star. Today, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have a loyal following around the world and were nominated in 2014 for a Grammy. But the profile of a soul singer is cut short, when Jones is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Kopple keeps the cameras rolling, capturing the immediacy of Jones’s struggle against cancer as her beautiful braids are cut off and then her head shaved. For Jones, cancer becomes only one more of the many struggles experienced in her journey as a recording artist.
The cinematic choices taken here are pure Kopple, particularly reminiscent of her first feature Harlan County USA (1976). That film was originally supposed to document the Miners for Democracy movement, when the coal miners suddenly went on strike against the powerful Duke Power company. Kopple and her small crew remained in Harlan County filming every day of the thirteen-month strike, capturing the hardships, violence, and ultimately the incredible strength and perseverance of miners, their wives, and the entire mining community. Kopple’s film went on to win an Academy Award. She then followed the battles of the Hormel meat packers in American Dream (1990), winning a second Academy Award.
In Miss Sharon Jones!, Kopple turns Jones’s fight against cancer into the main thread structuring this richly layered documentary. Woven throughout the film are cinema verite interviews of charismatic Sharon Jones, and her equally pivotal surrogate family of band musicians, manager Alex Kadvan and assistant manager Austen Holman, and close friend Megan Holken. The fine camerawork by Gary Griffin, Tony Hardmon and Kyle Kibbe is immediate and intimate.
Jones’s cancer throws the band’s schedule of engagements, booked often a year ahead, into turmoil. And, as assistant manager Austen Holman acknowledges, they all had to consider that if Jones did not pull through, the band would probably be finished. While Jones is an impressive fighter in her own right, Kopple contextualizes her story to include her friend Megan Holken, a nutritionist who offers to have Sharon live with her during her treatments, her manager Alex and assistant manager Austen who accompany Jones to the hospital for her treatments, and most importantly, the band musicians and singers who remain steadfast. They put together an animated short of Jones singing her latest song, “Retreat,” as they try to keep her spirits up.
In the Daptone Studios in Brooklyn, lead guitarist Binky Griptite recounts how the news of Jones’ cancer came at the same time as his wife filed for divorce. He highlights the raw realities of a musician’s life, where no gigs means no money. Indeed, if it were not for Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, this diverse group of musicians would not have steady work. Before joining the band, Dapette Sandra Williams recounts how she worked as a sex phone operator to the peals of laughter of band members.
In many of Kopple’s films of the past forty years, the power of family and community forcefully emerges. Collective action drives not only miners in Harlan County USA and workers in American Dream, but also the singers, The Dixie Chicks, in Shut Up and Sing (2006), and staffers of the weekly magazine in Hot Type: 150 Years of the Nation (2015). Having lived through the anti-war protest movements of the sixties and seventies, Kopple remains keenly aware of how people battle for justice and against obstacles by coming together. Families and communities, surrogate or otherwise, become as much of a focus in Kopple’s documentaries as the strong heroes and heroines who take center stage.
The strength of Jones herself is revealed as she talks about growing up the youngest of six children raised by a single mother, and later, working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island in order to support family. Jones visits her hometown in North Augusta, South Carolina, where she describes the vicious color line. In the Jim Crow sixties, children of color were forbidden from entering through front doors of white-owned, local shops. She recounts a particularly painful episode about a storeowner who trained his parrot to say “nigger stealing” whenever children of color came in. Jones credits singer James Brown, who inspired her “to be proud of her blackness.”
A highlight for Jones during her treatments is an invitation for the band to play on the TV talk show Ellen. Jones’s request to dance on camera with Ellen DeGeneres is granted. Afterward, Jones is clearly tickled watching the show on television. The unforgettable performance of this documentary, however, is Jones’s visit to her local gospel church. Jones, with head shaven, sings solo, and then dances solo, as the congregation cheers her on. Jones then catches her breath and so do we, realizing the unbelievable energy of this woman, still going through cancer treatments.
In the end, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have a comeback performance at the Beacon Theater in New York. Its tenderest moment is Jones’s forgetting song lyrics, prompted by her supportive instrumentalists. The rocky road is over and the audience enthusiastically envelops Jones and the band with applause.
While Jones infuses this film with her courage and gutsy spirit, Kopple provides the film its vitality by intercutting intimate portraits with scenes of everyday life, and vibrant musical performances. Miss Sharon Jones! becomes much more than a profile of a talented singer. Ultimately, the magic of this documentary is created by the special collaboration of two gifted artists, Sharon Jones and Barbara Kopple.
Kate Hearst teaches film history at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and is writing a book on the films of Barbara Kopple.