Exclamation marks the spot! On Monday, October 24, SCAD hosted the Savannah Film Festival screening of Miss Sharon Jones!, the new documentary about the tribulations and triumphs of the South Carolina-born soul singer, inspiring an ebullient, sustained ovation from the Trustees Theater crowd. The festival felt the funk.
As frontwoman of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Jones imbues rough, retro R&B workouts with a James Brown-inspired work ethic, earning a fervent fan base. In 2014, Jones received a cancer diagnosis. Barbara Kopple’s documentary follows her treatment, leavened by a number of astonishing musical performances.
Like Jones, Kopple doesn’t quit. A two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker for 1976’s Harlan County, USA, and 1991’s American Dream (both documentary accounts of the plights of striking workers), Kopple has amassed credits encompassing a fearless range of subjects and formats.
Following the screening, Kopple conducted a Q&A with journalist Susan Wloszczyna. “I’d never heard of Sharon until I saw this movie,” Wloszczyna said. “Thank you, because now I’m a fan!” Here are selections from their exchange, including a query from esteemed critic Leonard Maltin.
WLOSZCYNA: How did this documentary come about?
KOPPLE: Sharon’s manager decided that even thought people had heard her music, she wasn’t a household name, so he went to VH1 with a proposal. They said, “We’ve got just the person,” called me up and said, “How’d you like to direct a film about Sharon Jones?” I said, “Are you kidding? I would love it!” Sharon was doing chemo when I came into the picture, but I never thought this was a film about cancer. I never thought for a moment she wouldn’t make it. Really what I was looking at was, “Who is this phenomenal woman?” Sharon worked as a guard on Rikers Island, she’s tough as nails even though she’s tiny. There is no quitting in her.
MALTIN: One of the things about the film that struck me is that we were never aware of the presence of a camera crew at all. Was this a conscious decision?
KOPPLE: Yes. I asked questions and did things behind the scenes but the audience isn’t supposed to know that. Sharon didn’t always love us coming to film. She’d roll her eyes like, oh, they’re here again. But once we were there was very gracious and giving. She’ll tell all. She wants you to know exactly how she’s feeling and what she’s going through. The church scene was spontaneous and came from her soul. The DP, Gary Griffin, captured it all in one shot.
WLOSZCYNA: You’ve made many important documentaries. Do younger documentary makers come to you for advice?
KOPPLE: Sure. I tell people to persevere. Don’t keep your project a secret. Tell everybody about your project, and people will help you. Documentarians are a great community. We hang out and give our opinions on each other’s rough cuts. And I’d also say, love your subjects: give anything they’re willing to give, so that people will understand them.