By Jake Coyle
NEW YORK — Preparing to go on stage for the first time in months after intensive rounds of chemotherapy, an atypically nervous Sharon Jones sat backstage at New York’s Beacon Theatre, clutching a cup and shaking.
“Then they announce her – ‘Miss Sharon Jones!’ – and she goes like a prizefighter onto the stage,” recalls Barbara Kopple, the Oscar winning filmmaker. “And she just kills it.”
It’s one of the many moments in Kopple’s documentary “Miss Sharon Jones!” that captures the stark difference between life on and off stage for the dynamic soul singer most often compared to James Brown. In 2013, Jones was diagnosed with stage-two pancreatic cancer. The film documents her transformation into cancer patient and, ultimately, back into a full-throated force.
Yet what might have culminated in triumph has instead been complicated by the cancer’s reoccurrence, which Jones announced at the film’s Toronto Film Festival premiere last fall. She has continued to perform, but she’s currently on debilitating pain medication and recently underwent a blood transfusion.
On a recent off-day during her tour with the Dap-Kings opening for Hall & Oates, an exhausted Jones laid her head on the table of an Upper East Side bar. Late at night she and the Dap-Kings – her close-knit, retro-soul band of 19 years – would drive to their next show in Bangor. “Is that Maine?” she wonders.
“I had to take the chemo to get me prepared for the road,” Jones says. “I basically have to worry about the shows and getting up there and having the energy and the strength to get through those. So anytime downtime I have, I’m down.”
The documentary has, the 60-year-old singer says, turned into a kind of motivation for her second round with cancer: visual proof that she got through this once before, and can do it again.
“You got to be brave,” says Jones. “I want to use the time that I have. I don’t want to spend it all laid up, wishing I had done that gig.”
Kopple, the filmmaker of groundbreaking documentaries like “Harlan County, USA” and “American Dream,” didn’t meet Jones until she began filming. Their first day together was when Jones had her head shaved for chemo.
“The bond was so there, seeing her at one of the most vulnerable times in her life for the very first time,” says Kopple. “I think it gave her a real sense of trust and, on my behalf, a real sense of love for this woman who just has incredible strength and perseverance.”
Those are traits – along with a soulful wail that sounds straight out of Motown – that brought Jones fame in the first place. It didn’t come until the South Carolina-native was 40-years-old, following years of working blue-collar jobs in New York, even as a corrections officer at Riker’s. She was eventually brought in as a frontwoman for Daptone Records. Some half-a-dozen records have followed, which staked an early claim to soul music revivals (the Dap-Kings backed Amy Winehouse) and created some classic funk workouts and R&B ballads like “100 Days, 100 Nights.”
Short, stout and unstoppable, Jones is a show-business anomaly that has made an unlikely career out of beating long odds.
“I’m never surprised by anything that Sharon does,” says Kopple. “Sharon could be really tired after undergoing chemo, and then something happens that spurs her and you’ve never seen anyone so alive. You have to remember she’s an entertainer. So when people are around or there’s an audience, that gives her fuel and she forgets her pain.”
There are indelible moments in “Miss Sharon Jones!” that show that drive to perform. In one scene, shot in a single long take, she attends a small church for spiritual respite from the struggle. Though moving gingerly, she’s moved to belt out, with astounding passion, some gospel before slinking back to a pew. Singing, as much as God, is a lifeblood for her.
“It’s therapy,” says Jones. “I know I need rest and sleep. But I want to work and that is our job. Even though I’m sick, I still need to work. So I’m going back out now to get that extra energy.”
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