TIFF Reviews: “Miss Sharon Jones!”

Miss Sharon Jones

About halfway through watching “Miss Sharon Jones!”, I imagined a world where our Great Artists were not godlike figures descended from higher realms, but hard-working, flawed, genuine, emotional, frail, humble people who simply want to be able to continue their work. People like Sharon Jones truly deserve success. “Miss Sharon Jones!” is an incredible and important film about a remarkable artist, and stories like hers need to be told.

I’ve never seen a doc that affected me as much as this film. It was the first time I’ve ever watched a music documentary and felt like I was seeing a real person, someone who is just as unsure and confused and scared about what they are doing with their life as any normal person. The film demystified and de-glamorized the whole concept of a famous singer in one fell swoop. But it also somehow manages to cobble together an even more compelling mythology, one rooted in the indomitable, unbreakable spirit of an incredible woman who worked for over 30 years to achieve her dreams, only to have them snatched away from her at the crucial moment by her own body. It’s difficult for me to describe this film, as so much of what it expresses is ineffable, and a good tale is in the telling. Days later I’m still reeling from the emotional impact and fighting back tears whenever I think about it.

But to back up a bit: the film basically chronicles Jones’ yearlong battle against pancreatic cancer and the subsequent struggle of the Dap-Kings to release and tour an album when their lead singer might be dying. At the outset we see Jones in full flight, blazing across stages all over the world. Then in an incredibly emotional juxtaposition, we see her fighting back tears as her head is shaved. The barber in this scene has apparently never heard of her: Jones graciously tells him about her band and asks that he check them out online. It’s these small moments of indescribable humility that the film makes its most impact. Stripped of her strength and her ability to front the multi-armed soul machine that is the Dap-Kings, and without any real familial support, Jones turns to old friends and her adopted Daptone family to find a way to continue.

But the film bravely avoids maudlin sentimentality through the personality of Sharon Jones herself.  This is a woman who worked in total obscurity for decades to find success as a singer, and she’ll be damned if she’s going to let cancer stop her. She confronts her illness with a shocking and admirable lack of self-pity or fear. We do see her break down a few times, but it’s when she’s facing the idea of never touring again, or when speaking about her mother. When undergoing treatment, she’s funny and feisty and so determined to get back to herself that it almost seems she’s capable of defeating cancer through sheer willpower.

The Dap-Kings are her family. A soul band of nearly peerless ability who could probably find work anywhere, they are nonetheless completely unmoored by Sharon’s illness; you can see the love written all over them as they face the idea of losing her. Her backup singers, the Dapettes, are a couple of badass ladies (my wife called them “the anti-Destiny’s Child”) who have been her friends for years, going all the way back to her days as a wedding singer, and their closeness is evident and touching. Together with the band they form the core of Daptone Records, itself a scrappy upstart of a label that struggled for success. They fight, they fret about money, and most of all they worry about each other. And in the end they support Jones, literally and figuratively, as she slowly works her way back to the stage.

And when she does return, it’s not the flawless return to form that Hollywood comeback narratives demand. She stumbles a bit, but the Dap-Kings are there to catch her, and it’s a beautifully human moment. As she says in the film, she can’t be the old Sharon anymore, but she can be something else. What “Miss Sharon Jones” shows us is that all that matters is another chance to make great art, and that great artists can also be good people.

This film might be the greatest and most important music documentary ever made. Every musician should see it.

Post-script: Even though it pales in comparison to the impact of Sharon Jones herself, I wanted to take a moment to talk about the miraculous place that is Daptone Records, aka “House of Soul” studio. It’s a ramshackle brown brick home in Brooklyn, next to a dry cleaner if I recall correctly. The studio itself is just a living room and a few sliding doors to make isolation booths. There’s no fancy gear or even sound isolation beyond a few egg cartons stuck to the walls. All the gear is analogue. They record all the horns on one mic. They destroy takes to save tape. It’s a beautiful place where the people are what make a great record, not the technology. I spend a lot of time ranting about this approach in defence of my own work as a musician, so when I saw the first shots of the studio I felt giddy and I wanted to stand up and cheer. Bosco Mann and his Daptone cohorts are rebel geniuses helping to fight the technocratic dehumanization of art.

Post-post-script: Sharon was present at this screening, and she announced that her cancer has returned, this time in her liver. But without missing a beat, she told us that she had already resumed chemotherapy, and then plugged her upcoming gigs. Then as a finale to the Q&A section of the screening, she unleashed her incredible voice for a quick acapella rendition of “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” (which she also sings in the film). Her voice was so strong and so present that I felt my bones shaking. It was as if the air had turned into liquid gold. After the screening she stood in the lobby, in her sparkly white dress, taking pictures with everyone who asked. If anyone can, as Binky Griptite said, “kick cancer in the ass”, it is Sharon Jones. She’s unstoppable.


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