Barbara Kopple's Miss Sharon Jones! tells the kind of true story that makes you want to kick creation itself square in the crotch. Here's that firecracker soul singer, nearing her 60s, her boogie still majestic, her band still a tight retro marvel, her wail still the southern end of a northbound dragster. When she's onstage, her Dap-Kings lock into a groove, her sweat flies and if you're in the crowd you damn sure dance or you aren't worth knowing.
This century being what it is, and the music biz being even worse than the rest of modern life, Jones supports herself and her stiletto-sharp J.B.'s-style retro band through old-fashioned barnstorming: They haul their gear around the world and, each night, knock off a couple hundred people's socks. It's a hard, honest life, and a demanding one. The too-quick clips in this documentary's opening moments suggest the power of her hard-funk art, but to feel it for real you need a longer exposure, to get caught up in it, to surrender your metabolism.
Kopple can't let the groove work its spell, because she has a story to get to: Jones entered chemo for pancreatic cancer in late 2013. By the following February, the indefatigable singer was back on the road, crossing the globe with her band in support of a strong new album, Give the People What They Want, her sixth for Bushwick's upstart Daptone records. Kopple's film follows Jones through those tough months, showcasing her resilience, her hopefulness and her everyday eccentricity. Turns out the dynamo loves fatback and daytime talk shows, and still can't quite believe she met James Brown.
Jones was a regular person longer than she was an indie-soul star, working as a corrections officer and singing in a wedding band before finally putting a record out at age 40. So she faces her diagnosis — and financial uncertainty — as people you know might: humbly, grateful for the help and love of those around her, well aware of how much worse others might have it. The closest to a celebrity meltdown we see is when she's briefly heartbroken that a November dinner with her bandmates has fallen through — they're the closest to family she has in New York, she says. But just minutes late she's exultant: She's been booked on Ellen, one of her favorites.
Kopple's film is intimate and rousing. We see Jones rejecting wigs, getting her head shaved, consulting with her doctors, knocking back spinach-y smoothies prepped by the dietician friend who takes her in. On Billboard's excellent Soul Sisters podcast last week, Jones discussed how initially she considered fighting her management on even doing this movie: “Put a camera in my face while I go through cancer?” she asks. Meanwhile, we get glimpses of her band facing a season without work — some struggling to make the rent, others talking about taking out bank loans to keep afloat. One of the most moving scenes shows Jones, bald and thin, working through new numbers with the Dap-Kings. The performance is a treasure even without her strutting footwork and percussive James Brown growls and shouts.
It all builds to a clean bill of health, a triumphant tour, lots of TV appearances and a feel-good ending belied by the fact that the story hasn't ended. Jones is again undergoing chemo treatments, this time for cancer in her stomach, lungs and liver. Meanwhile, she's doing promotion, touring with Hall & Oates and singing with such power you can't believe, when she's onstage, that anything could ever stop her. “I'm not ready to give up yet,” she said on that Soul Sisters podcast: “I get up on the stage and the pains seem to go away for a while.” That's proof of what you already feel at a great musical performance: Some talents are actually healing. Stay strong, Miss Jones.