There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Miss Sharon Jones!, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
There’s an unexpected heaviness to Barbara Kopple’s film Miss Sharon Jones. The documentary follows the titular funk-soul singing sensation in the wake of being diagnosed with stage II pancreatic cancer, but it’s more complex than that given what happens once the cameras stopped rolling. Filmed across the years between albums with her band the Dap Kings, 2010’s I Learned The Hard Way and 2013’s Give The People What They Want, the film ends with a note of powerful optimism. Jones has beaten the cancer and is seen strutting across stages all over America, wowing audiences in theaters packed to the rafters. When Miss Sharon Jones premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, though, Jones informed the audience that her cancer had returned. A year later, while watching the presidential election results come in, she had a stroke that she would later, jokingly, blame on Trump. On Nov. 18th, Jones had another stroke and passed away.
Given how things played out after filming wrapped, you might think that Miss Sharon Jones would be a sad affair. In fact, what we see is a rich and compelling testament to Jones’s strength as a woman and as a performer. Scene after scene presents a woman who’s overcome so many hardships, with her voice and stage presence carrying her from one lofty accomplishment to another, be it buying her mom a house or singing (and dancing) on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It’s not over dramatic at all to say that Jones’s spirit, in every sense of the word, now fills the space between every frame of this documentary.
There are lots of fascinating nooks and crannies to be found in the run-down of Jones’s life both as a performer and a civilian. Maybe you knew that Jones spent years singing at weddings before teaming with the Dap Kings and finding fame but, did you know, before that she was a corrections officer at New York’s Rikers Island Prison Complex? All those biographical tidbits, though, are trumped by the generous outpouring of love and support she gets from her loved ones while she goes through the horrible ordeal of fighting cancer. Kopple does an amazing job at subtly showing the ways that Jones’s cancer is affecting those around her, like her friend Megan Holken who has generously opened her house (and health-conscious home cooking) to Jones in between chemotherapy sessions. With Holken in particular, you see someone who is so happy to have an opportunity to give back to Jones who has clearly brightened Holken’s life in so many ways.
There’s a professional and personal push and pull for some of those close to Jones, most notably her backing band the Dap Kings. These are working musicians who rely on Sharon Jones as the source of their income, a responsibility that Jones clearly feels. The filmmakers catch the group in the uncomfortable place, after her diagnosis but before her remission, where plans need to be made. Decisions need to be made under the impression that she’ll be fine, but in the back of everyone’s mind, the cold hard fact of the matter is that there was no guarantee. A whole organization is going through the process of plotting the release of a new record and the planning of a tour, knowing that at any moment they could get bad news that would put all of that into chaos. To a man, their love and affection for Jones is paramount, but the elephant in the room needs to be addressed, which we glimpse with occasional peeks behind the curtain at some undeniably tense band meetings.
Even in the face of cancer and chemo, on top of the stresses of an album release and upcoming tour, Jones manages to stay on track, firmly refusing to compromise her artistry, but also maintaining an almost impossible amount of warmth and charm. There isn’t a single room that we see her in across the film where she isn’t the most undeniably magnetic person there, which is really saying something for a woman who’s under five feet tall. Through it all, it’s the power of performance that gets her, through. The records are good, but Jones is clearly in her element when she’s on stage. Watching her shake off the cobwebs in front of a packed house after a year of being in and out of clinics is incredibly moving. She’s visibly shaking before taking the stage, and flubs some lyrics early on, but she pulls it together and morphs into the woman who’s more than earned the title “Queen of Neo-Soul”.
As someone who watched their mother go through chemotherapy for hodgkin's lymphoma, I can personally vouch for the tenacity that’s needed to make it through to the other side of the treatment process. Seeing not only that struggle captured here, but also the emotional support structures that helped Jones see her way through to the other side, even if it was short lived, struck me as as incredibly valuable and moving document.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.