The call to filmmaker Barbara Kopple to discuss her interest in making a movie about singer Sharon Jones came at an odd time. The singer, often called the female James Brown, had just been diagnosed with cancer.
That would not seem to be the best time to have a camera crew dogging your every step, but the project moved forward. The result, “ Miss Sharon Jones!”, ends up as both a resounding salute to the Georgia-born singer who embraces soul, funk and R&B with passion, as well as a compelling look at what happens when a force of nature slams into the dark matter of cancer and has the will, power and spirit to break through.
The journey for Jones was long and frustrating. She was told that she was “too short, too black, too fat” to become a recording artist. It took her decades of working odd jobs, including stints as a wedding singer and as a corrections officer, before she landed her big break at the age of 40. Success came when she joined musical forces with The Dap-Kings.
Kopple’s long career, accented by the documentaries “Harlan County U.S.A.” and “Shut Up and Sing,” displays her eye for understanding the power of music while seeing the strength in a very human story.
Her “Miss Sharon Jones!” is a powerful and personal story. Fans of the singer and the Dap-Kings will get to see a tribute to the band, while newcomers will find a performer whose energy is almost endless. At the same time, Kopple knows when to slow the film down.
There’s a moment during the two years of treatment where Jones visits a small church. She struggles to get to the top of a small set of stairs, fighting for each breath. Inside the church, she’s transformed. She sings for the first time in months and moves like she’s in front of a theater full of fans.
This is a beautiful way of showing how Jones’ determination helps her reach a goal and how the music always seems to take her higher.
The small weakness in Kopple’s work is that she doesn’t delve too deeply into the struggles Jones faced at the beginning of her career. Jones gets very emotional when talking about her mother. That would have been a perfect opening to explain how a woman who is such a relentless force would allow anyone to sidetrack her career for two decades.
Kopple has plenty of other material that she embraces, including a nice mix of emotional scenes of Jones battling cancer and her cyclonic presence on stage. Her powerful performance won’t just knock the roof off a building, it can also send the pieces flying to other counties.
The little lack of history is like one bad note in a fiery symphony as directed by the skilled hand of Kopple, who captures the unbridled spirit of the one and only Sharon Jones.
Miss Sharon Jones!
Cast: Sharon Jones, Alex Kadvan, Austen Holman.
Director: Barbara Kopple
Opens: This month’s presentation by Fresno Filmworks has screenings at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14, at the Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave.