New documentary, “Miss Sharon Jones!” reveals the late singer’s joy and pain

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Late soul singer, Sharon Jones, is the subject of a new documentary that bears her name. “Miss Sharon Jones!” allows the singer to detail her own life, from her troubled childhood, to harsh criticism from the industry that kept her an obscure artist for roughly 30 years. The film appears on Netflix just as the one-year anniversary of the singer’s death approaches on Nov. 18.

Who is Sharon Jones?

Sharon Jones seems to have been a woman with a common name, but an uncommon talent. Fans of late night television saw her performing as the musical guest, along with her band, the Dap-Kings. Her television debut occurred in 2002. By then, Jones was well into her 40s. She’d been singing since the 1970s.

Her mother moved the family to Brooklyn, New York from Augusta, South Carolina when Jones was young. Jones and her sister began singing in church. In the 1970s, Jones started and performed with a number of bands, but the gigs only afforded her extra money, not a career. Jones’ most unusual job was a stint as a correctional officer. It was an unexpected move because Jones was not even five feet tall.

Throughout the 21st century, Jones and the Dap-Kings found success with several albums. Still, it just seemed as though audiences had almost found her too late. Jones’ frustration with the music industry’s assessment of her, “too black, too short, too old.” The phrase, sometimes with the addition of “too fat” is repeated in the documentary. It illustrates the singer’s (rightful) anger. Certainly her performances indicated that there was no other singer like Jones.

Sharon Jones on film

Jones offered an unflinching look at her life, and traveled with the filmmakers to the various cities that shaped her musical and spiritual life. Even those unfamiliar with dances done in the holy spirit will recognize Jones’ onstage moves as similar to those she does in the church she visits.

Jones’ bandmates, backup singers, assistant(s), and medical personnel all freely talk about their feelings regarding Jones. Jones explains that she thinks of her band as family. Audiences get a view of Jones’ insular world, and how hard she works to maintain the dream.

When the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer comes, Jones takes audiences into her process of preparing for the inevitable. She goes to a barber and gets her trademark braids cut off. The gravity of the moment causes a stillness and sadness on both sides of the screen. The barber finishes cutting and massages an oil into Jones’ shorn scalp.

Then, after the sadness, Jones turns to the mirror and expresses her surprise that she has a “nice-shaped head.” Jones even asks the barber if she has an odd shape in the back, and he confirms, no. Then, the mood is light again as Jones embraces her new look, as if it has nothing to do with chemotherapy. Her survivor spirit shines through in the moment.

Jones never plays “the star.” Her down-to-earth personality is real and vibrant, and those watching already know how the singer’s story ends off-screen, but they can’t help but want Jones to beat cancer.

The last scene is of Jones in concert. Her cancer has returned, and her gallbladder and part of her small intestine and pancreas have already been removed, but in a red, spaghetti-strap fringe dress, Jones could have been the picture of health. She dances her heart out, and sings in her “freight train” style voice. Before she exits, Jones gives a deep courtesy as a packed house gives her a standing ovation, her red dress shimmying in triumph.

Often called the “female James Brown,” Jones lives up to the comparison. One of the interesting moments in a film comprised of such moments, Jones recalls the time she met James Brown. Her portrayal of the moment make audiences happy for the encounter.

“Miss Sharon Jones!” shows the perfect with the imperfect. It captures a life whose story is worth telling from various angles from women’s narratives to music history. Jones’ story teaches audiences what hope looks like.

 

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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