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'Miss Sharon Jones' documentary reveals icon’s battle with cancer

Stacy M. Brown | 9/9/2016, 6 a.m.
Just as her career began to take off, iconic soul diva Sharon Jones faced her greatest challenge – a life-threatening ...

Just as her career began to take off, iconic soul diva Sharon Jones faced her greatest challenge – a life-threatening battle with cancer.

But, not only has Jones remained on stage, her battles have been chronicled in a new documentary that’s receiving rave reviews.

Director Barbara Kopple covers a difficult episode in the singer’s life, utilizing that vulnerability to create moments that are breathtaking, even inspirational, the Washington Post noted in one riveting review.

Before rising to her current level of globe-touring prominence, she performed in a wedding band while working odd jobs, including a stint as a prison guard.

Her big break came after meeting Gabriel Roth, the Dap-Kings bandleader and a co-founder of Daptone Records, the Post noted.

After a string of successful albums and tours, Jones got disastrous news: Diagnosed with bile duct cancer, she would need surgery.

Kopple’s film focuses on the period of Jones’s convalescence, as the singer divides her time between upstate New York and Georgia, undergoing chemotherapy and trying to regain her strength.

Growing up in South Carolina, Jones knew from the first time she sang in her church’s Christmas play that she would be a musician.

“I was, like, maybe 8, 9 years old ... and I got to sing ‘Silent Night,’” she said in an interview that aired earlier this year on NPR. Jones remembered audience members taking note of her performance. “Right then and there,” she said, “I knew that I was going to be a singer. God had blessed me with a gift.”

With her high-power vocals growling over the Dap-Kings’ caffeinated soul, Jones channels the power of James Brown in his prime, another review, this one by the New York Times, raved.

Mainly, though, the film traces her life from a terrifying diagnosis of Stage 2 pancreatic cancer in 2013 through her triumphant return to the stage in 2015.

The celebratory tone we hear from Ms. Jones at the end of the movie contrasts with the more muted one she sometimes strikes today, the review notes.

The early part of the film casts back to Ms. Jones’s childhood, which was rife with racial indignities. During her birth in Augusta, Ga., her mother needed a cesarean operation, but since the hospital didn’t allow African-Americans in their main units, the procedure took place in an unsanitary storage room.

In the film, Jones returns to a local store she patronized as a child, where she said the owner had trained his parrot to recite a racial epithet whenever a black person entered. “It had a lot of effect on us as children,” Jones said. “You’d be afraid when you saw white people.”

Kopple, the director, said Jones has “got a tough attitude.”

While major labels repeatedly shunned the singer as over the hill and “too dark,” she finally found a perfect partner, and a breakthrough, via the fledgling indie Daptone Records, which specializes in reanimating the vintage sounds of soul, funk and Latin music.

The prolific Dap-Kings have put out seven albums with Jones and backed Amy Winehouse on her album “Back to Black,” while Jones herself has been a popular choice for cameos on recordings and live shows for artists like Michael Bublé, Rufus Wainwright, David Byrne and Phish.

Central parts of the film show the financial hardships both Jones and her band underwent when they weren’t able to work during her illness.

The film balances that with scenes of the star being nursed back to health in upstate New York by an acquaintance, Megan Holken, whom Jones had only connected with a few times over the years.

At a news conference for the film’s first showing at the Toronto Film Festival last year, Jones announced her cancer’s initial return. At that time, doctors found a spot on her liver (later treated with radiation). “I didn’t want people to come up and congratulate me on beating cancer when it’s back,” she said.

Similarly, the singer lets her audience at shows this year know some of what she’s going through with the cancer’s latest re-emergence. “There’s pain in my hips, and my legs feel like tons,” she said. “Getting out on that stage, that’s my therapy. You have to look at life the way it is. No one knows how long I have. But I have the strength now and I want to continue.”

“Miss Sharon Jones” is now playing at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore.