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Miss Sharon Jones! documentary captures soul singer's spirited cancer battle

Del Cowie

Miss Sharon Jones! is the latest documentary from Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA). The stirring and inspiring film focuses on Sharon Jones, the internationally revered 60-year-old soul singer as she attempts to deal with living with pancreatic cancer while managing her career with her band the Dap-Kings.

As anyone who has seen her live or has heard her on her several albums for Daptone Records can attest, Jones is a dynamic presence as a singer and a performer. In this film, however, Kopple goes well beyond the stage and delves deeply into Jones' personal life.

Consequently, we are introduced to Jones' indomitable strength and spirit. We see the intimate relationships of Jones' support system of friends and bandmates and managers, who, to her, are essentially her family. We accompany Jones to the hair salon as she becomes bald ahead of chemotherapy treatments, recuperates in Upstate New York town Sharon Springs and builds up her strength again, relearns her music and gets back on stage for a triumphant return with a show at New York's Beacon Theatre. Not only do we catch a glimpse of her affinity for fishing and the Ellen show, but we see how her dogged determination, passion and authenticity as a person endear people to her, regardless of her fame, infusing the documentary with a huge dose of unadorned reality.

Indeed, at the premiere screening of Miss Sharon Jones, which took place at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, that reality hit close to home. During the Q&A portion after the screening, Jones revealed the cancer had returned and she would have to undergo further medical treatment. And now as the film starts to roll out in cities across North America, including Toronto on Aug. 19 and in Vancouver on Aug. 29, Jones continues to battle a recently discovered tumour, forcing her and the Dap-Kings to reschedule shows on their summer European tour.

Jones had undergone radiation treatment on the day she spoke to me. “But my fans, they understand,” Jones confides. “As soon as I get up on my feet I got something to look forward to. I don’t want to lay down and just wait for my body get to the point where I can’t do anything. While I got my strength I want to live my life. I want so sing. I want to do it ‘til I can’t do it." Read my full conversation with Jones, below.

This film premiered here in Toronto and one of the things I wanted to know was what that experience was like.

When it premiered there, that was my first time seeing it. So it was pretty cool that I didn’t want to see anything beforehand so to see it for the first time there. How they put those hundreds and hundreds of hours of material [together] to tell that story in an hour and a half was actually amazing. And it goes just to show you how Cabin Creek, Barbara Kopple and her crew — you know they knew what they are doing. It’s like me. I have that when I am on that stage with the Dap-Kings. Each one in the band has their instruments, like those guys' cameras, you know? So it’s just amazing how did they did that, how they got my story.

How did director Barbara Kopple gain your trust to work on this?

Well, my manager first of all put it out there to VH1, and VH1 knowing Barbara, they asked her to do it. And then of course we met up at the beginning of the movie. Cutting my hair and shaving my head [for chemotherapy] was the first time I met Barbara.

Oh wow. That’s an intense scene.

Yeah. And of course she read up on me and she was like, "I love you!" She gets so passionate. I just asked her to not put certain things in there that I didn’t want. Like for instance, me waking up and getting out of bed. What, you slept with me in my bed with the camera? You know what I mean? I’m coming out of the bathroom in my robe? OK, we don’t need to see that. Stuff like that. She kept those things out. It was really great, I appreciate it. Then I got my trust, when you can see that someone is not going to do that. She gained my trust. And I’m sort of glad I didn’t see the movie before I came up [to Toronto] because the scene where I curse the band out — I probably would have told her, "Could you take that out?" It was already in there, there was nothing I could do. Barbara was like "Oh, we can take it out" and I was like "Nah, you don’t need to do that, it’s really telling the story." Because I really did get angry, that was like my family. I wanted to be there with them, you know, and I'm not with my family and [you guys] ... it made sense. And you saw -- we made up.

Going into the film I wasn’t expecting to see that sense of family.

To sit there and hear the stuff about [Dap Kings guitarist] Binky [Griptite] and his wife [divorcing] and some of the members talking about not being able to get a loan, what they went through. Those guys kept it from me because they knew that would have been more pressure on me even though they knew I was getting my stuff back together to get back out there. I didn’t even know that and that’s showing the love that the band had for me, like a family. I was amazed when I saw that, I was like "Oh my God!"


Now there’s a new song that came out from the soundtrack to this film called 'I’m Still Here.'

It’s really like a little bio. And I was like, "How are we gonna put the cancer in there? The Big C?" Oh yeah, "The big C / Crashed down before me/ And take it all away." And we wrote that like "Boom!" And to get it for the soundtrack, and it came out — pretty cool.

How did you feel about the fact that some of the imperfections of having to relearn lyrics are in the film?

That ain’t nothing. Just get out there and do it. That’s life. That’s what happens. You heard me tell everybody [at the concert that ends the film]. [Me forgetting words] is going to happen a few more times. We’re human beings and that’s why I like to be straight up. Stuff happens, you’re gonna forget some lyrics. And don’t be shy about it. Let 'em know. If you can’t get it, then move on.

You said you were working on some new stuff. What can we look forward to?

[Daptone Records head] Gabe [Roth] told me there’s a few more I gotta do [for the new album] and then I’m looking forward to start picking songs and working on this gospel album. New gospel and some old classics. It’s gonna be something I did coming up in church in the choir. I want to do it with the Dap-Kings and make it sound more like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings gospel. We are soulful gospel. And that’s it. That’s life, you’ve got things to do.