You may never have heard of Sharon Jones or her band, the Dap Kings. They are not stars; they are the very embodiment of working musicians: they don’t have hit songs — their brand of funk-soul, reviving the sounds of the 1960s and 70s, may be too niche for that — but they tour like crazy, and audiences adore them. And just at the moment when, in late 2013, their music was starting to get a taste of mainstream success and a little bit of media recognition, disaster strikes: Jones is diagnosed with stage-two pancreatic cancer, and her exhausting treatment — surgery and chemo — sidelines her and the band for months.
Jones is down but far from out, as legendary documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple* shows us in this intimate and ultimately cheer-worthy portrait of a singer for whom overcoming adversity has been a mainstay of her life and career. She laughs about being told, early on, that she was “too dark, too short, and too fat” to be a music star, but the fatigue of her illness proves a challenge to the exuberant stage presence, if not so much the powerhouse voice, that has led some fans to call her a female James Brown. With so much on hold while Jones recuperates — including the release of their album Give the People What They Want [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] [iTunes U.S.] [iTunes Canada] [iTunes U.K.], which would later go on to earn them their first Grammy nomination — we witness her band’s crisis of matters practical: the Dap Kings is a small business, they all earn their livings from touring (not record sales), and being out of work is tough. And so this becomes an expose, too, of the lack of a social safety net for creative people (their health insurance is being tried by the expenses of Jones’s cancer treatment).
But the band is a family first, the only one Jones has, and so above all, this rousing film is a testament to the power not only of music but of love to keep a gal going when she hits rockbottom.
*Kopple is included in my recent survey of pioneering women documentarians for PBS.