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If Miss Sharon Jones! could be boiled down to a single scene, it would go something like this: the 59-year-old soul singer – currently in the throes of chemotherapy for Stage Two pancreatic cancer – hobbles up a small set of church steps; huffing, puffing, and clutching the rail despite the short ascent. By the time she takes her seat in the pews, she’s exhausted. At some point, the musicians at the altar start playing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”. Sharon Jones creaks her head up and walks to the front of the chapel, her breathing growing steadier with each step. She takes the mic.
“I sing because I’m happy,” she whispers.
“I sing because I’m happy,” she sings.
“I sing because I’m happy!” she wails in a rusted-gold voice that’s more James Brown than Ella Fitzgerald, although she’s influenced by both artists.
As she tears through the rest of the gospel-hymn-turned-soul-classic, her limbs flail and her head snaps back and forth like a woodpecker, moved by a higher power that could be God, music, or both. The song ends. She improvises, she bows, she takes her seat once again. Her breathing devolves back into its labored state. She slumps over. She looks tired. This is a woman who almost turned the church steeple into a rocket ship with her vocals. But she’s also a woman who’s very, very sick.
There’s no pleasure in watching someone so alive get pummeled by a disease as unforgiving as cancer, and yet that’s exactly the angle of Barbara Kopple‘s documentary: this study in contrasts. For much of the film, Jones seems like two completely different people, both of whom we see in the church sequence. There’s the exhausted, ill Miss Jones, the one who we see struggle up those steps to sit among the congregation. Then there’s Miss Jones the performer, whose whip-crack energy flips the bird at her age, let alone at a life-threatening sickness. One of these women shuffles around in pajamas at her friend’s house in upstate New York while trying to heal, spending her hours painting and watching daytime television. The other throws on a shimmy-ready fringe dress and performs on one of those shows.
Miss Sharon Jones doesn’t focus exclusively on the singer of the title. As she fights for survival and the continuation of her long-overdue success (the Dap-Kings didn’t form until she was almost 40), we also follow her bandmates, manager, and publicist, all of whom have to deal with the possibility for the first time that, when they take a break from touring, their singer — not to mention their friend – might not come back. As they cope with this hard truth, we learn a little bit of their history and varying relationships with Jones – how she’s remarkably strong and generous, yet also scrappy in her humor and sometimes bullheaded in her fortitude.
But the most compelling sections of Miss Sharon Jones are still her leaps in physical and creative strength. If Jones can move from mortal woman to musical superhero in the space of a few moments, if she can convert the despair within her ravaged body into energy, then so can the rest of us in our times of weakness. There’s always the chance that we can backpedal, of course. There’s always the chance that the cancer will return, that our bodies will ultimately give out on us. But as Kopple and Jones prove, the struggle itself can be just as inspiring as survival.