Miss Sharon Jones!
Directed by Barbara Kopple
Opens July 29
At Emerson college, a documentary professor who was a peer and friend of director Barbara Kopple once told me that you had to clean up a subject’s desk before interviewing them. Kopple’s newest film, Miss Sharon Jones, like much of her work in the last few decades, is a film of clean desks. She relies too heavily on a damning principal that the audience for a documentary needs everything tidied up for easier consumption. There are several unsatisfying climaxes, arrived at without the oomph needed to make them work narratively. There are unnecessary establishing shots and chyrons. Alternately overmuch and too little information is given on the members of Jones’s band The Dap-Kings and their managers. The biggest problem remains a lack of confidence in Jones herself, arguably one of the most compelling performers on earth. Is the film about her recovery from cancer, her history as a performer, her relationship with her band, her managers, her southern roots? Kopple believes the meager rations of each will amount to a banquet. That it still provides a window into Jones’s soul is a testament to the soul legend’s ability to tell her own story in her singing, dancing and talking honestly and with feeling.
The film begins with an overlong, obnoxious introduction to Jones as an anonymously important performer before taking a nose dive into her 2013 cancer diagnosis. That’s symptomatic of the film’s grab-bag formal approach. Kopple spends a few minutes at a time on any given subject before changing focus or location. If she’d kept the camera trained on Jones the whole time, the payoff would have been titanic. Scenes of Jones losing herself in a church gospel band’s rendition of “Shout” is a transformative showstopper. The song’s reappearance at the end of the film ought to be a cathartic release and a reminder of all she’s gone through, but Kopple’s unemphatic handling of the moment makes its resonance feels accidental. Jones going to town on a barbecue sandwich or doling out hard-fought wisdom in beautiful bites like “can’t fish without a cigar,” has all the riveting humanity any director could ever hope to capture. That Kopple thought the film needed so much extra stuff betrays either a lack in confidence in her subject or an autopilot belief that documentaries can only be made with the help of the usual tics and tricks. A vignette involving a Thanksgiving parade, a cavalcade of late night hosts saying her name, and a sudden leap to another diagnosis feels like a dishonest ploy to keep the film a series of big events. Jones’ face backstage before her first concert post-cancer is one of the most beautiful and compelling sights on any movie screen this year. Kopple should have let things stay messy and let Jones tell it like it is.