When soul singer Sharon Jones takes the stage, she is always introduced by her backing band, the Dap-Kings. As the musicians play a fast and funky tune, guitarist and emcee Binky Griptite hypes the performer who is about to enter, working up the crowd’s expectations before announcing her arrival with a cry of “Miss! Sharon! Jones!”
Indeed, Jones is an exuberant performer: She never stops dancing, for one thing, and she sings to the rafters. Yet the documentary “Miss Sharon Jones!” is about more than her considerable gifts as a performer. Director Barbara Kopple covers a difficult episode in Jones’s life, utilizing that vulnerability to create moments that are breathtaking, even inspirational.
Jones is no overnight sensation. Before rising to her current level of globe-touring prominence, she performed in a wedding band while working odd jobs, including a stint as a prison guard. Her big break came after meeting Gabriel Roth, the Dap-Kings bandleader and a co-founder of Daptone Records. After a string of successful albums and tours, Jones got disastrous news: Diagnosed with bile duct cancer, she would need surgery.
Kopple’s film focuses on the period of Jones’s convalescence, as the singer divides her time between Upstate New York and Georgia, undergoing chemotherapy and trying to regain her strength. As her bandmates and manager start to put pressure on her — booking gigs while Jones is still sick — the documentary takes a cinema-verite approach to her mounting anxiety.
At 60 years old and shorter than five feet, Jones is no typical frontwoman, and she spends most of the film without any hair, the result of her cancer treatment. Kopple presents all aspects of her illness matter-of-factly: The singer never asks for pity, and “Miss Sharon Jones!” doesn’t provide it. Rather, it presents the chemotherapy and subsequent fatigue with the same attitude that Jones has toward it: a mix of boredom and frustration. (Jones talks about how her family and bandmates count on her, yet she understands the dangers of returning to the stage too soon. Presented without voice-over narration, these insights come from casual conversation. When Jones talks with other cancer patients, everyone struggles to maintain a positive attitude, and Kopple’s film suggests that it’s integral to recovery.)
But what makes “Miss Sharon Jones” most captivating is how its subject, in spite of hardship, remains a magnetic stage presence. In one long, unbroken sequence, Jones attends a Sunday church service at which the pastor invites her to sing. Somehow, she finds the power to belt out gospel as if she’s in the middle of a sold-out concert tour. As Kopple pans the camera, we see perhaps 40 people in the church. The disparity between her outsize performance and the small crowd is a powerful testament to her talent. Jones’s fans are already hip to her dynamic live shows, but Kopple’s film — which explores but never exploits Jones’s illness — will create new converts.
In between stunning performance footage and Jones’s discussion of her treatment, “Miss Sharon Jones!” includes a little too much padding that seems designed to flesh the film out to feature length. Do we really need all those shots out a moving car window, or more than one scene of Jones flyfishing?
As with Jones’s bandmates, Kopple is mostly content to stand back and let her subject do her thing. “Miss Sharon Jones!” ends on a triumphal note, and some additional complications: After another tour, Jones is forced to return to the hospital. Cancer, it seems, may always be a part of her life. Yet the disease has nowhere near the force of her own most soulful instrument.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains strong language and adult situations. 93 minutes.