Sharon Jones, Remembered by Documentarian Barbara Kopple: ‘When She Was on That Stage, She Had No Pain’ – Billboard
The director of ‘Miss Sharon Jones!’ shares memories of Jones’ indomitable and occasionally mischievous spirit… and how she was humming, if not singing, even to the end.
Sharon Jones left a particularly powerful last will and testament: Miss Sharon Jones!, the feature film directed by famed documentarian Barbara Kopple, which won plaudits on the festival and art-house circuits this year. Kopple says it never even occurred to her along the movie’s four-year journey that it might stand as a eulogy and not a survival story, although it barely makes for any less upbeat of a viewing experience now that Jones has succumbed to cancer at age 60.
If you have any acquaintance with Jones’ unbending charms, offstage as well as on, it’s not hard to guess why Miss Sharon Jones! is one of the two favorites Kopple has from among her 30-plus films, along with the one that made her name as a filmmaker in 1976, Harlan County U.S.A. The day after Jones’ death was announced, Kopple spoke with Billboard about why Jones made such a personal impact on her, still sounding astonished that the woman who sings “I’m Still Here” so movingly in the movie is not still here.
“When I was making the film, I never thought for a minute that anything would happen to her. All the time that I saw her, whether it was having chemotherapy or getting ready to perform again, it was done with so much light and perseverance and energy behind it that I just felt that someone with this kind of strength, courage and motivation has to make it. So I never thought that she wouldn’t, for one minute. It never even crossed my mind. She made you think, ‘Yes, I can do this, there’s nothing in this world I can’t do’ — that’s what she would have you feel.”
“I just saw her a week ago. The film was showing at the opening night of the Glimmerglass Film Days festival in Cooperstown, and she was staying in Sharon Springs and really excited to be there. The next day I was driving up there with her manager, Alex [Kadvan], when she was rushed to the emergency room. We went right to the hospital and saw her, and she didn’t really say much. She just looked at us, and her eyes widened and she had a smile on her face.”
“All the Dap-Kings came in, and they were playing a guitar, and she was humming the most intricate melodies, whether the songs were soul or gospel. It was just amazing. She just lay there and hummed to the music. She knew every single song, and she didn’t stop. Even after I left and more of the Dap-Kings and other people came, they told me, ‘She’s still singing’ — meaning humming. It was beautiful. It was all the power of her voice, without the words.”
“We did a Q&A after the screening in Cooperstown and didn’t want to say anything to this packed audience about what was going on. I didn’t know how I was going to feel looking at the film then, or even this week, when it showed here in New York at NYC Docs. But I was so happy to be watching it, and I didn’t think I would be — seeing her dancing and singing and moving with that tremendous power in her voice that just comes from her soul and seeing her go through all of this and come out the other side and go out and perform. It gives you a different perspective when you look at it like ‘I’m not gonna see this again from her, ever.’ But even with all of that, I just loved just watching all of her little mischievous laughs, like when she’d be bad and eat food she wasn’t supposed to eat. I’m just addicted to seeing her in that way.”