Film Reviews

TIFF Review: ‘Miss Sharon Jones!’

Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Miss Sharon Jones!
USA, 93 min.
Dir. Barbara Kopple
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)

Barbara Kopple has the distinct honour of being one of three filmmakers in the class of TIFF 2015 who premiered a film at the Festival’s inaugural edition forty years ago. (The others are Wim Wenders and Chantal Akerman.) Kopple’s Harlan County, USA debuted at the then Festival of Festivals in 1976 before going on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and solidifying its place in the canon of great documentaries. (It screens free at this year’s festival.) Kopple’s latest effort Miss Sharon Jones! is a fine continuation of four decades of superior filmmaking.

Add Miss Sharon Jones! to the ever-growing list of great 2015 documentaries featuring musical subjects that includes films such as What Happened, Miss Simone?, Montage of Heck, and Amy. Kopple delivers not a music documentary with Miss Sharon Jones! but rather an inspiring portrait of how music sustains us and gives us life. This intimate character study of singer Sharon Jones reaches deep down into her soul to present a character whose struggles are inevitably life-affirming.

The film gives a cinema verité portrait of the recent years in the life of soul singer Sharon Jones as she battles cancer, develops a new album, and readies for a world tour. Jones has a deep and forceful voice, and her stage presence and energy are equally electric, which leads fans and critics to liken her to James Brown. Forging a professional career as a musician isn’t easy for Miss Sharon Jones, though, as the singer recalls how an executive at a major label told her she was “too black, too fat, too short, and too old” to make in the business. Kopple briefly chronicles Jones’s perseverance as the singer recounts the day jobs she put in to make music at night. There’s no denying that Miss Sharon Jones paid her dues a-plenty.

The film features toe-tapping excerpts of Jones’s performances with the Dap-Kings, and Miss Sharon Jones! swells the viewer with the funk and soul of Sharon’s music. Her songs feel like tunes from the days of big brass bands mixed with the spunk and fever of the glory days of vinyl. The music plays even better as a live performance, as footage of Jones’s concert show an energy and lust of performing that liken Miss Sharon Jones to an unstoppable force.

Jones enjoys a relatively comfortable level of success as her hard work pays off, but the biggest fight of her life comes with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in the midst of cutting a new record and planning a tour. Miss Sharon Jones! accompanies the singer as she undergoes chemotherapy, and Kopple’s camera follows Miss Jones throughout the experience, much like Steve James does with Roger Ebert in Life Itself. The film frankly observes the physical and emotional tolls cancer takes on Jones, as well as the patience and determination one needs to survive.

Nothing in Jones’s treatment ever plays as graphically as the painful “suction scene” from Life Itself does, but Kopple finds the minute details, such as the burning pain she feels all the way to her fingertips, that vividly characterize Jones’s struggle. Most effective is an early scene in which she goes to the hairdresser’s and voluntarily loses her braids and shaves her head before she loses her hair to chemo. The scene is an effective act of not of surrender, but of agency, as Jones puts herself a step ahead of her illness. It’s an emotional tipping point for the journey to come.

It’s a testament to her strength as a fighter that Jones rallies for the tour while undergoing chemo and recovering from her treatment. The film’s soulful look at Jones’s passion for music also gives a practical snapshot of how tough it is to make a career in music. Money doesn’t come easily even if one sells records, fills world tours, and books gigs on “Ellen” and the late-night shows: even in the face of death, money is always an issue, and Jones and her band depend on her success for their survival. One member of the Dap-Kings even reveals that his bank denied him a loan when they learned of Jones’s illness. Music is that tough of a market.

As much as Kopple objectively portrays Jones’s experience kicking cancer “in the ass” (to use the singer’s sassy terminology), she never defines this soulful performer by her illness. Sharon Jones is a fighter and a survivor, Kopple shows, whether she’s breaking through barriers in the music business or beating cancer. Both are ruthless beasts and she trumps them both.

Miss Sharon Jones! instead defines the singer as an effusive life force. Her spirit rarely wavers. The centrepiece of the film shows how the cathartic power of music is medicine for the soul as Kopple and her crew accompany Jones to church. Sharon Jones sings a gospel hymn with enough power and conviction to deliver a miracle, and she gets hopping with the congregation by celebrating life in the face of death. It might be the best performance she gives in the film, especially since she flares to life so quickly and candidly. This scene proves definitive in its portrayal of Jones’s dogged grit in forging ahead and remaining positive as if she is ridding the cancer cells from her being and regaining her strength with her unshakable spirit. The inspiring Miss Sharon Jones! hits a very high note.

Reviewed at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
Please visit www.tiff.net for more information on this year’s Festival.