The career of soul singer Sharon Jones has been unconventional in just about every way. Once famously told by a Sony executive that she was "too old, too fat, too short and too black to make it," the former wedding singer and corrections officer has had a long road to success.
After four well-received albums with her band the Dap-Kings, Miss Jones seemed primed for the biggest release of her life. All of the pieces of the puzzle had seemingly come together and that’s what made the news that came next sting extra hard. A stage 2 pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2013 sidelined the release of a finished record called "Give The People What They Want," and put her future in jeopardy.
Academy Award-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple ("Harlan County USA") chronicles this difficult period in Sharon’s life and career with an unflinching eye. Before beginning chemotherapy, Jones goes to a hair salon to have her braids cut off and head shaved. There’s a stunning close-up as she clutches the cut hair tightly in her hands, followed by the tears welling up in her eyes as these first visible changes due to her illness occur. It’s a raw moment, only lightened somewhat by her passionate self-promotion telling the man temporarily altering her appearance to "Google her" and the band.
It’s the first of many powerfully intimate moments reflected through her treatment and recovery. We follow chemotherapy sessions and interviews with band members who admit that they are struggling financially because of the band’s time-out. Despite a lack of mainstream success, the Dap-Kings had already crafted a rabid fanbase that allowed them to tour and stay afloat. Without the ability to hit the road and promote an album, Sharon is shown not only having to deal with her own recovery but also facing the economic pressures of having so many people dependent on her for their livelihoods.
A fascinating documentary could’ve been made about Sharon Jones even before the cancer diagnosis. Her story has been one of survival and hope for anybody following their dreams when they’ve been told they should just give up. Success came late in life for her and showed how hard work can pay off in ways that you never expected. The one word that kept popping up in my head during the film was resilience. To fight for every inch of that success and then have to battle to stay alive proves how strong she really is and, after seeing this documentary, I’d never bet against her.
Kopple is not afraid to peel back the layers of this story – there are tears, there is fighting, there is infectious laughter. For her part, Jones is not afraid of being seen as vulnerable and her humanity shines through in every moment. We watch her flinch during a chemo session, but we also get to watch her shout with sheer joy when she gets the news that the band has been booked to play on "Ellen."
If you somehow stumble into this film without knowing the music of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, it’s hard to imagine that you’d walk out with anything but the desire to go buy all of their albums. The film culminates in a real celebration – after being deemed "cancer-free," a beleaguered Jones takes the stage at the Beacon Theater in New York to a sold-out crowd that includes her doctor who gets to watch her perform for the first time. Still exhausted from her treatments, she takes the stage and feeds off the crowd’s energy to regain her footing and kick-off another year on the road. Here’s to many, many more.
Other screenings: 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, Alamo South Lamar; 1:45 p.m. March 19, Topfer Theater.