Considering Barbara Kopple has made two of the best documentaries of all time (Harlan County, USA and American Dream, both of them Oscar winners), I tend to have high expectations of her films. Maybe that’s unfair. Earlier this year, I championed the latest from fellow legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (Unlocking the Cage) as being perhaps lesser work but still better than most nonfiction features made these days. Kopple’s latest, Miss Sharon Jones!, is also a good film, not nearly of the quality of those two masterpieces of hers, but just fine. And that should be okay. We shouldn’t take these filmmakers for granted when they deliver docs that are still above average.
Miss Sharon Jones! is deserving of some criticism, however, even if it’s not a bad film. There’s just not any spark to the film itself. It falls to the subjects, primarily of course Sharon Jones, soul singer and front woman to the Dap Kings. Fortunately, she and her story are arresting enough that the form can be an afterthought. The doc is focused on her treatment for cancer following her initial diagnosis in 2013. During this time, the band has to take a hiatus from touring and even postpones their sixth album. She loses her hair, grows moodier and moodier as she’s weakened by the therapy, and she talks of having a bucket list of places she’d like to travel to before she goes. She laughs about it, but death is on her mind.
You can also tell she appreciates a lot of little things as she’s fighting for her life. Booking an appearance on Ellen is a big deal for a band, but Jones is excited about the gig not just because she’s a fan of the show and not just because it’s good promo but also because it’s a special treat she’ll never have the chance for again. The joy she gets from dancing with Ellen Degeneres carries over to a joy we feel for her. Likewise, when she gets angry at her bandmates for something as seemingly simple as a group dinner, that’s also shared by us. She doesn’t say it, but she’s clearly mad in part because she just wants to spend quality time with her “family” as much as possible when they’re all together for a meeting, rehearsal, whatever.
The story of Miss Sharon Jones! is interesting for a few reasons that go beyond just tracking a cancer patient through to recovery. Although Jones is the center of the film, it’s also about what a band faces when their lead singer is ill and can’t perform and maybe will leave them, whether because it’s too much to balance or, worst case scenario, she succumbs. There’s a tricky and extra sensitive matter in her being their friend but also the means to their earning money. And it goes both ways. Their lives and their work are tightly intertwined, though Jones keeps trying not to let one mix too much with the other, but it’s impossible to a degree. Everything comes together when she finally starts performing again and she’s forgetting lyrics, getting winded, addressing the crowd about her personal bout.
The film is more a character-driven work about one person coming back from a low. It’s comparable to Kopple’s other major music docs, with Shut Up & Sing having the Dixie Chicks rising out of political controversy and Wild Man Blues following Woody Allen touring with his jazz band in the wake of his scandal where he left Mia Farrow for their adopted daughter. Miss Sharon Jones! seems the least classifiable as a “music doc” so much as a character study, though there are a couple terrific concert sequences in the final act. What the doc lacks is a significant sense of drama or thrill in what’s happening on screen. Moments are brief then pass, and even with the cancer threat it’s all kind of flat until, as expected, she makes it through okay.
Miss Sharon Jones! also makes it through okay. There are times when I felt like letting it go, when it seemed that as a film it just wasn’t strong enough to reach anything of necessity. Where Jones just being a lovable and inspiring character wasn’t enough. But those final moments have so much energy, not only from Jones and the band’s performance and her addressing the hiatus and the cancer in a thrilling display of personal artistic expression, but also from the editing, that it’s worth sticking with. It also helps that the doc is appropriately stocked with tunes from the subjects, who are without argument the most authentic ’60s and ’70s funk/soul group not formed in that period. You can miss Miss Sharon Jones! but you won’t hate yourself for checking it out if you do.