She’s 60 years old, less than 5 feet tall, a bit rotund and a soul-singing sister through and through. When she first appeared onstage, music industry mavens told Sharon Jones, the voice of the funk/rhythm and blues supergroup Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, that she was “too short, too black, too fat and too old,” to make it. They failed to see that she was a born performer too talented to be marginalized and too feisty, energetic and stubborn to quit.
Now a documentary by two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County, U.S.A.”) shows this still largely unsung powerhouse’s slow and steady struggle upward to jamming on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and in big venues. It’s the sort of fly-on-the-wall cinema verite that tells its story without interviews or narration. That’s not needed. “Miss Sharon Jones!” delivers a nonstop concert of star power with a heaping side of never-say-die resilience.
Jones deserves words stronger than “spry” to describe her. She’s a fighter, carrying her group’s 2014 album, “Give the People What They Want,” to a Grammy nomination. Some describe her as “the female James Brown,” her avowed idol. I hear a bit of the chart-hitting Tina Turner of the 1960s and ’70s. The film is a great way to hear her at length and decide on her influences yourself. It’s the kind of impeccable performance journal that’s equally focused on her vocal delivery and the flame-red sparkle of her fringe-flipping flapper dress.
And it goes deeper, following Jones through events like the death of her mother with moments of vulnerability but no self-pity. It’s a testament to the inspiring passion that great performers can transmit to audiences, as well as the support that we clap, whoop and holler back. Straddling the genre fence between biography and performance album, this is the kind of live music movie that makes you want to dance on top of your chair.
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As she gradually mounted the totem pole of fame, she performed the oddest of odd jobs. She not only worked in a wedding band, but wore a corrections uniform during her period as a prison guard at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. I don’t think she ever needed to use a taser. She’s like a little firecracker with 100 pounds of dynamite, plenty stunning on her own.
The film is even more impressive considering that it was filmed in part during her recent battle with Stage II pancreatic cancer. Extensive surgery and six months of chemotherapy shelved her career for over a year and took the hair off her head, but it couldn’t keep her from staging a triumphant comeback. Whether Jones was carrying prison keys or convalescing from cancer, she was always a professional musician eager to be a star, and there’s not a moment in the film when you’re not wishing for her to succeed.
The poignant film opens near the onset of her illness and continues through the relaunch of her delayed 2014 tour, showing her filling theaters, prancing, dancing and electrifying microphones. If the film has a weakness, it’s in creating issues about what will become of the band — whose members adore her — if she fails to return to the stage. That feels like mock suspense. They say the show isn’t over until the fat lady sings, and Jones seems determined to belt out awesome music for another half-century at least. Jones’ beloved James Brown was labeled the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. Meet the Hardest Working Woman.
Miss Sharon Jones
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Sharon Jones, Austen Holman, Alex Kadvan.
Director: Barbara Kopple.
Running time: 1:33.
Rated: Not rated.