Yesterday, Steve and I went on a date to Minneapolis. Our favorite dates go like this: Mass at the Basilica, brunch at Moose and Sadie’s, play at the Guthrie or movie at the Lagoon or Edina theater.
Because the film we wanted to see was at 12:15 p.m., things were a little crowded. So we went to Mass on Saturday at home and then went in just for brunch at the film. Somehow I thought that Lucia’s Restaurant was only open for dinner (2-10), or we would have gone there. Instead we went to Barbette, where I had a fantastic omelet with chunks of ham and stretchy, flavorful Gruyere, and Steve didn’t mind that there were not hash browns; the smashed red potatoes sufficed.
Then on to the main event: Miss Sharon Jones. It’s a documentary by Barbara Kopple (who won Academy Awards for Harlan County, USA and American Dream but who has done so much more). This documentary is about soul singer Sharon Jones and her comeback after a cancer diagnosis in 2013. Can I just point out that she performed bald, and looked amazing doing it!
I know Sharon Jones’s story because our son-in-law, Homer Steinweiss, is the drummer for the Dap Kings (that blurry guy in back of SJ). The band has been together a long time, and were the touring band for Amy Winehouse. As Homer says in the film: “I’ve played with this band since I was 16 years old.” Steve remembers meeting Sharon at a record release at a record store in Minneapolis (I’m thinking it was probably Electric Foetus) where about 20 people showed up. They struggled a long time before achieving success. We were at their First Avenue show for 100 Days, 100 Nights, their breakout success, where Homer reported excitedly that they had sold out– the first sold out show of that tour. After that venues got bigger and selling out the venue a more regular occurrence.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are known for sparking the soul revival that is very strong in popular music right now. A few years ago, driving home from a friend’s cabin, the funky, rural public radio station had pretty much divided all the best songs of the year into two categories: funk/soul-inspired and British-pop-inspired. Daptone Records, a studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, basically started so the Dap Kings could record music the way they wanted to– funk and soul only on analog equipment– and press real records. In that way they are part of this whole “back to the basics” movement in, well, everything. Artisan records!
Because of Homer, we were aware of Sharon’s cancer in 2013. The band was about to release a new CD, Give the People What They Want, which was delayed a little more than a year until Sharon could finish treatment. And she just barely finished treatment before a tour was upon them.
I have trouble imagining touring two-three weeks after chemotherapy. Sharon went out there and sang bald! That is so brave! I hadn’t realized that until I saw the trailer for the film.
Sharon really sums up “the head game” of returning to life after treatment when she says: “I’ve lost my confidence.” I know for me I have to get psyched up, still, for a bike ride or to do laundry (going up and down stairs) or work in the garden. And I can call off any of these activities whenever I want. In this film we see the gigantic machinery of a CD release in action, and the 11-piece band waiting to get going (and earn some money), and the pressure on Sharon is intense. Because even though these young people say their first concern is her health, and they mean it, they are also setting up a tour and record promotion and it’s rather high stakes. And it’s one thing to perform a single song on a late night show (though what if chemo brain makes her forget the lyrics?) and another to do a 90-minute set on stage before a large live audience.
And when that day comes, you can feel the love for Sharon Jones. The patience of the audience, and the true joy of the audience to see her return.
Also, Sharon Jones is fierce and she his funny. She has her sense of humor to help get her through. She jokes about her bucket list and as she runs down her television schedule for the day– from Michael and Kelly through Ellen. When she gets the call that she’ll be on Ellen, she can barely contain her excitement. “That’s like meeting Oprah!” she says. One more item from the bucket list.
And I couldn’t help appreciate that a friend of hers put her up in a rural setting during treatment in New York State. And made green smoothies and good food for her! I was so happy to see her in that setting, not in a New York City apartment or even with her extended family in Georgia (who were calling for money while she was in treatment). I have known for years that Sharon had a large number of people to take care of– but this film brings it home.
This is a beautifully-made film. Sharon Jones is an incredibly strong woman. There is a powerful scene where she goes to her Pentecostal church and sings– and dances. She was in pain climbing up the church stairs, but when the spirit moves– she comes back to her powerful self. Her voice and her feet won’t fail her. It’s a turning point in her confidence (though turning points are often short-lived in this cancer game).
It’s also an incredible example of what it means to “live with cancer.” You have to be brave every day and keep bringing up your game. How does a whole community, and a fan base, go forward in this news and experience? Sharon’s worry (one of them) was that the CD would be released posthumously and sell really well, because “poor Sharon, oh she was such a saint, she was so amazing, how come we didn’t recognize it”… the Jim Croce story. So the release and the tour itself are a triumph. And when she isn’t up for making a video, too, they do an animated video that she adores– they even got her beauty mark in there. No sugar-coating of Sharon Jones, who was told she was too black, too short, and too overweight to make it as a singer. Take that!
If you don’t know the music of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, you should listen to some. They also put out an excellent Christmas album last year. And if you get a chance to see Miss Sharon Jones, (the film or the live performer), don’t miss her!
For a very poignant and great interview, I recommend this visit she did with Terry Gross for Fresh Air. Right now, she is touring and getting more rounds of chemotherapy. Hers was a short remission, which does not help the longterm prognosis. Knowing this while watching the film was also sobering. One can understand why she wants to continue performing now, not just go to bed. Everything I hear is that she has good energy (though she’s performing with neuropathy, which I cannot imagine) and is in good spirits when she shows up to perform, to record, and etc. I’m hoping for a long life and a lot more music from Miss Jones.