Miss Sharon Jones!


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Miss Sharon Jones!
"Though the impression is of something collected in a very informal way, the whole is skillfully assembled."

For every great talent that carries its owner to worldwide stardom, there are a dozen equally talented people just scraping a living, waiting for their moments to come. Even back in the Seventies people were describing Sharon Jones as 'the female James Brown'. She has an extraordinary voice, shaped by the gospel choirs of her childhood, but despite the albums, the critical acclaim and the collaborations with influential people like Lou Reed, she never quite broke through. When Barbara Kopple began making this documentary in 2013, it seemed as if all those decades of hard work were finally going to pay off. Then Sharon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

As cancers go, pancreatic cancer is one of the most worrying ones, with five-year survival rates still under 10%. Though the film doesn't go into that kind of detail - the disease is understood as a limiting factor, a stumbling block, not the star of the show - it's clear that Sharon is shaken by what she has been told. The good news is that it has been caught early, significantly increasing the chance that treatment will be successful. She needs to start aggressive chemotherapy straight away, however, and that will mean cancelling her tour. This is a crisis for all involved. Her bandmates are left with no income. She has little to live on herself, and is fortunate to be invited to live with a friend. Money is cobbled together to keep up the health insurance payments. Everybody tries to put her wellbeing first but she's quite aware of the impact it's having on the close-knit group.

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Perhaps because it didn't set out to be a film about illness, this is considerably better than most of those that do. Sharon puts across clearly the enormous inconvenience and frustration that such a diagnosis brings with it, as well as conveying, in terms more powerful because they are so spare, the permanent nature of the fear one has to live with after such a diagnosis, challenging the popular notion that cathartic suffering followed by redemption applies in medicine. Most importantly, Sharon is never an object of pity. It would be difficult for viewers to lose sight of her agency when she has enough personality for ten.

Squeezing all that personality into a film of this length is one of the challenges Kopple faces. There's a lot to Sharon - a lot of interests, abilities, friendships, talents - and a lifetime of stories. There's a lot we're left to wonder about simply because there's no time to fill it in. This isn't attempting to be a life or career history. It's simply a snapshot of a moment in time - a moment when Sharon must use all her resources just to keep going, but when her ambitions are bigger than ever.

Ambition isn't always an attractive trait, but in Sharon it's combined with a sweetness and humility that Kopple captures perfectly. From delight at meeting one of her heroes to wistful musing on how she'd love to win an award (which, given the work she's produced over the years, is amply deserved), what is captured here feels honest and real. There's a mixture of direct interview material - often in chaotic environments - and simple observation. Though the impression is of something collected in a very informal way, the whole is skillfully assembled. the music, sufficiently present without over-emphasis, contrasts with the restraint of much of what is said, and the film packs quite a punch.

Reviewed on: 27 Sep 2016
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Miss Sharon Jones! packshot
Following the star as she undergoes treatment for cancer and tries to mount a comeback.

Director: Barbara Kopple

Starring: Sharon Jones

Year: 2015

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: US

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