Soundtracking is a regular column looking at the music featured in the biggest new releases both in theatre and on home video. Shane McNeil looks at Miss Sharon Jones! the just-released doc on a 21st Century Soul Survivor.
What do you know about Sharon Jones?
To some, the 60-year-old soul stirrer is a household name. She’s a Grammy-nominated vet with seven albums to her credit (with her incredible side men The Dap-Kings) that’s equally capable of glad-handing at the Macy’s Parade and cashing in on Christmas as she is running anchor for a line of indie rock luminaries at Radio City Music Hall.
To others, though, she’s a complete unknown.
This is where the new Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A.) film Miss Sharon Jones! comes in. The documentary, that played TIFF 2015 and opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, August 19, 2016, drops the audience right into the middle of the career of a woman with over a decade in the industry, but whose recording career as we know it didn’t begin until her mid-40s.
What happened? Well, thankfully Jones summed up her life story in a handy four minutes for “I’m Still Here,” her single off the film’s soundtrack.
Jones’ singing career that never got off the ground in its prime because she was deemed “too fat, too short, black and old,” eventually launched for good in the late ‘90s. And it was thriving in the 21st Century until – as Jones sings – “The big C crashed down on me.”
Cancer… A whole lot of it… Jones’ bile duct cancer got re-diagnosed as pancreatic cancer and took her out of commission for over a year, just as things were starting to get rolling.
It’s this Jones that Kopple gets on film: A strong black woman that spends all her energy fighting for her life while her late opportunity at stardom begins to flicker. It’s tough to watch for the passive observer and even tougher for anyone that has ever experienced Jones’ act in person.
Mythmaking is an interesting side note whenever new musical documentaries arrive on the scene.
In many ways, the current appetite for stranger-than-fiction musical lives was established by the Oscar-winning 2012 doc Searching for Sugar Man. Some facts in that film were, let’s say, stretched to get to an end goal of Rodriguez’ decades-late ability to bask in his global celebrity.
Closer to the straight-up musical narrative, Charles Bradley: Soul of America told the story of Jones’ Daptone label-mate, a soul singer that went from a dirt-poor Florida childhood to a career as a James Brown impersonator then back again only to eventually emerge as a modern soul dynamo… The Screaming Eagle of Soul.
Where Miss Sharon Jones! inevitably lands its subject’s celebrity will be interesting to watch. Her 21st Century catalogue is deep and she has a sizeable fan base as is. However, the evolution of the music industry has changed the standard definition of success.
In the film, Jones comments that she’d love to one day go platinum and you can see her face visibly drop when she’s told that it doesn’t really happen anymore. And it’s true. Just before Jones got off the ground, selling a million records was no big thing … even Marcy Playground did it. Now, in an era of streaming and licensing fees, recording artists need to hustle a bit more to get the same level of recognition.
That’s not to say Jones hasn’t. If her voice sounds familiar it might be due to the opening credits of 2009’s Up in the Air. Or it might be from a Fitbit or Keurig commercial. But that’s not something Jones can hang on her wall.
Then there’s the other part of the conversation that gets left dangling… the cancer itself. Jones revealed at TIFF ’15 that the cancer had returned. However, it didn’t stop her and the Dap-Kings from hitting the road this summer to support a Hall & Oates reunion and a West Coast fall tour that will take them through both Red Rocks and The Hollywood Bowl.
Regardless of how it impacts Jones’ life, or the fortunes of a two-time Oscar-winner like Kopple, the film still stands as an incredible document of a natural fighter facing long odds. If nothing else, it boasts a huge, huge soundtrack.
Enjoy this playlist, even if you’re undecided on the film.