Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: a documentary that foreshadowed the death of its subject and offered a moving tribute in the process.
Anyone who sees Barbara Kopple’s documentary Miss Sharon Jones after reading this recommendation will have a very different experience with it than I did in August. The movie’s title subject, an unflappable soul singer and cancer survivor, died last month from another bout of pancreatic cancer. Her perseverance, like everyone’s, had limits.
You might not get that sense from seeing the movie, though. Jones is energetic and ebullient throughout, even when she’s waiting on pivotal news in a doctor’s holding room or lying on the couch recovering from surgery. On stage, she’s a beast, backed by her band and proto-family of Dap-Kings. Offstage, she’s fiercely opinionated, never failing to speak her mind when she feels her bandmates are neglecting her or offer thanks when family friends help ease the pain of her illness.
Kopple is a veteran of documentaries like Shut Up & Sing, which followed the Dixie Chicks in the aftermath of a political firestorm that tabled their careers. Jones’ story, even in light of recent events, is far more uplifting and straightforward. She’s one of the mightiest talents of her generation, and a relentless force for passion and optimism that’s aware, not naive. Kopple captures Jones and the people around her in a flattering light that captures edges hard and soft. And aside from an ill-advised voiceover narration, she’s a fly on the wall, observing and recording. With the final product, she captured a three-dimensional portrait of an artist, and a woman, who saw struggle as opportunity. That’s an inspiring story, and one that ought to define the legacy of the late, great Miss Sharon Jones.
You can rent Miss Sharon Jones on Amazon.