It seems that every couple of years, a movie about a well-known musician or music persona is made. There have already been two of note in 2016: Born to be Blue, about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, and starring Ethan Hawke as the tumultuous title character; and the controversial Nina, with the casting of Zoe Saldana as the great soul mistress born Eunice Wymon attracting much criticism. There is a third film to add the list: Miss Sharon Jones, a wonderful and emotional documentary about the eponymous singer and her journey battling stage 2 pancreatic cancer.
Many film biopics have received praised (Ray comes to mind), while others have tanked – the aforementioned Nina being one of them. Documentaries are a different style of storytelling, and often focus on a single period of time in an artist’s life. In the case of Sharon Jones, the film spans from mid 2013 – when she first received her cancer diagnosis – to her comeback in 2015.
Seeing anyone go through cancer is an emotional experience for an audience member to take in. What makes Miss Sharon Jones even more heart-wrenching is watching the star break down as she goes through the medical and chemotherapy processes. Also, pancreatic cancer is among the most difficult forms of cancer to beat. Considering Jones did not have her career break through until age 40, after toiling as a wedding singer for 20 years, makes the opening scene that much more heart-breaking to watch.
But this film is about so much more than a world-renowned singer and her fight against a debilitating disease. It is a tale about friendships, heroes, hope, survival, and ultimately, triumph. Two such heroes in the film are Sharon’s manager Alex, and Dr. Leonardo, her oncologist, whose unwavering support, helped her recuperate relatively normally. Dr. Leonardo was even among the guests of honour at The Dap Kings’ first show on the Give The People What They Want tour.
The friendships in this film are more like family. Sharon’s bandmates are willing to do whatever it takes (including postponing the release of their fifth album) in order to give Sharon the time she needs to recover adequately. They have meetings about how much stress and commitments she should take on, which also gives the viewers a unique look-in as to how the inner workings of a touring band or organized an discussed.
But more than anything, Miss Sharon Jones! is a story of hope and survival. Jones has always been a survivor. It was hard enough being a black singer from the south in the 70s and 80s, but Jones persevered through it all, releasing her first record in 1996. Throughout the film, Jones stated that her dream was to nominated for a Grammy. In what undoubtedly was this tale’s greatest triumph, Give The People What They Want was nominated for best R&B Album at the 57th Grammy Awards. Our greatest achievements are born out of our greatest pain. Sharon Jones epitomizes that.
Miss Sharon Jones!, directed by Barbara Kopple, had its premiere at TIFF in 2015 and is now playing across selected cities in North America.