As difficult as it is to watch portions of “Miss Sharon Jones!,” knowing that the cancer that sidelined the feisty singer in 2013 has returned, it’s also impossible not to get swept into the cauldron of joy that occurs every time Jones clasps a microphone.
Jones, the Augusta-born soul dynamo, spent much of her adult life playing weddings and serving as a corrections officer at Rikers Island before the world discovered her musical prowess.
She, along with her ace band the Dap-Kings, is the deserving subject of the new documentary, which is playing at Midtown Art Cinema.
Under the experienced direction of Barbara Kopple, winner of Academy Awards for the documentaries “Harlan County USA” and “American Dream” and director and producer of the Dixie Chicks’ “Shut Up and Sing,” the 90-minute film skillfully balances Jones’ health challenges — she was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer in early 2013 — with the music that is, undoubtedly, the singer’s lifeline.
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The camera captures Jones as she sits pensively at a hair salon, her eyes distant and watery, as she fingers the braids that have just been clipped from her head in preparation for chemotherapy treatments.
But, Jones being Jones, within moments of a clipper buzzing her scalp bald, she looks in the mirror and cracks, “I always thought I had a bad-shaped head!”
Jones’ monthslong recovery was done at the Sharon Springs, N.Y., home of longtime friend Megan Holken (a nifty bit of unearthed video shows the singer belting “Over the Rainbow” at Holken’s wedding), and she recounts her daily diet of daytime talk shows with a resigned shrug. This is a woman who is used to speeding 100 mph most days, so, to her, recuperation isn’t an opportunity to relax, but a jail sentence.
Kopple juxtaposes Jones’ recovery with concert footage that showcases the incendiary, body-shaking performances that come naturally to the singer (she most recently performed in Atlanta in May with Hall and Oates and Trombone Shorty).
Fans of her music will hear plenty (as well, a soundtrack featuring a new song, “I’m Still Here,” is available). “Slow Down, Love,” “100 Days, 100 Nights,” “Mama Don’t Like My Man” and an arresting version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” performed by Jones unaccompanied in a Pentecostal church, are among the highlights.
Considering Jones is frequently referred to as a female version of James Brown, it’s fitting that she visits the Augusta Museum of History, where a photo of the pair hangs.
“I want to at least have one of these one day,” Jones says, admiring a Brown Grammy Award. In 2014, she and the Dap-Kings got their first Grammy nomination for “Give the People What They Want” (they lost to a Toni Braxton-Babyface collaboration).
The film burrows a few notches deeper as Jones drives through North Augusta, S.C., where she grew up a few miles from her Georgia birthplace, and she recounts the racism she experienced as a youth.
Kopple also doesn’t retreat from underscoring the financial toll that Jones’ health is taking on the band, whose living is earned primarily through touring.
Though all of the Dap-Kings clearly love and respect Jones, it’s still wince-worthy to hear Dap-Kings founder Gabe Roth (aka Bosco Mann) recount how he was rejected for several home refinancing loans because bank personnel had read about Jones’ illness and worried about his ability to make payments if he wasn’t working.
But, Jones’ spirit is mighty, and even after she endures another surgery in January 2015 to remove a small mass from her liver, she is soon shown dancing a whirlwind and reaching deep for those booming notes at a concert at Augusta’s William Bell Auditorium.
“When we’re on that stage and that music is out there, I have no worries in the world,” Jones says at one point in the film. “People came to see us … and the show must go on.”