Out of Frame: Miss Sharon Jones

Posted by on Aug 12, 2016 in Voice-Over | 0 comments

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The first scene of Miss Sharon Jones is the worst scene, by a wide margin. It’s an overview of the famed soul singer’s appeal, tricked out with voiceover narration and talking heads that explain in no uncertain terms what would be immediately obvious to anyone watching the unadorned footage. “Some have called Sharon Jones the female James Brown,” the narrator drones while a shot of Jones shimmying in the James Brown style appears onscreen. I slumped in my seat with a groan.

Much to my surprise, though, the stylistic excesses of the documentary’s opening scene largely disappear once the dazzling title card rolls past. The narrator never appears again, and the talking heads appear only sparingly, in places where their commentary deepens and illuminates the onscreen action. Miss Sharon Jones does justice to its title character’s explosive charisma, impressive perseverance, and dazzling bona fides, all while telling a wrenching tale of cancer’s emotional toll.

Director Barbara Kopple, who previously tackled the controversy around the music and public persona of the Dixie Chicks in Shut Up Sing, focuses almost entirely on the period when Jones battled pancreatic cancer in 2013 and 2014. (The cancer has since returned.) The rest of Jones’ story unfolds elegantly within that frame so that a complete portrait emerges without a comprehensive overview of the singer’s accomplishments. Jones’ insistence on striving for a full recovery so that she can return to recording and performing music speaks volumes about how she’s achieved a long run of success. The willingness of the people around her — friends, family, her bandmates the Dap-Kings — to sacrifice their time and energy to make her feel better illustrates Jones’ own warmth and generosity.

The movie’s concert footage conveys the dynamism her concertgoers get to experience each time she steps onstage in no uncertain terms. Jones’ voice is powerful, expressive, and unwavering, even after the cancer has had its effect on her day-to-day health. She dominates the stage, stalking back and forth as she urges the audience to play call-and-response or just clap along. She even takes time out of her explosive act to pay vocal tribute to her bandmates, showcasing them by name during an extended section of each performance.

Much as the movie makes Jones an appealing figure, it doesn’t shy away from the less glamorous aspects of her experience. The camera follows her on doctor visits and into the bedroom, where she runs down her daily schedule of TV watching in a memorable moment that pays off later when she gets to perform on one of the shows she watches regularly. Her health slowly returns over the course of the movie, but not without frustration about the speed of her recovery, or occasional outbursts at her bandmates’ small missteps. A lesser movie would obscure these moments for fear of alienating the audience from its subject. But Miss Sharon Jones recognizes that a fully realized character is far more interesting than a sanitized one.

The documentary doubles as a portrait of an artist forging a path through the music industry that has yet to penetrate the upper reaches of the Billboard charts and the public consciousness. Perhaps the movie will mark another step towards that kind of exposure. But if it doesn’t, Sharon Jones probably won’t mind, as evidenced by the movie’s last and best scene. Jones stands onstage mid-song and delivers the story of her cancer battle and subsequent recovery in an escalating musical riff. The interlude ends with a glory note so tremendous it would have made the movie worth seeing even if the entire thing had been as bad as the first scene. No scripted moment could say more about this movie’s subject than a simple shot of Sharon Jones in her element. A screenwriter couldn’t have crafted it better.

Miss Sharon Jones
Directed by Barbara Kopple
With Sharon Jones, Austen Holman, Alex Kadvan
Not rated
93 minutes
Opens today at Landmark E Street Cinema

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