Barbara Kopple‘s latest premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival was not unlike her first one at the festival’s inaugural edition 40 years ago.
“I just remember that it was full and that people loved it and they stood up and clapped,” she recalls of her Oscar-winning debut Harlan County USA’s world premiere in Toronto’s Festival of Festivals in 1976. “And that I was crying.”
Kopple might as well be describing the reception to her most recent documentary, Miss Sharon Jones!, following its emotional world premiere screening in Toronto last Friday (September 11).
The film chronicles New York-based soul singer Sharon Jones’ return to the stage after a battle with stage two pancreatic cancer. A go-for-broke performer who has defied the music industry’s youth obsession to become a cult sensation at age 59, Jones watched the film for the first time at TIFF along with her band the Dap-Kings, her management, her oncologist, friends and caregivers.
Afterwards, all of them piled on to the stage along with Kopple, her Cabin Creek Films crew and TIFF’s documentary programmer Thom Powers to an uproarious standing ovation from the audience. Jones praised Kopple and then surprised the room by announcing that her cancer had returned.
“I start chemo on Wednesday,” she said. “But I’m gonna keep fighting. I’m gonna keep battling. I’ve got a long way to go.”
After everyone on stage shared their reactions to the doc, Jones brought the house down with an a cappella rendition of a gospel song she sang in the film.
“The screening was beyond my greatest dreams,” Kopple says in an interview with realscreen the afternoon after the premiere. “I hope the film sells Sharon a million records, which is what she wants.”
The project began two years ago when Jones’ management approached the two-time Oscar winner about making a documentary. Kopple was not especially familiar with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ music but felt the singer’s openness and resilience would make her a cinematic subject.
She assembled a team of experienced doc shooters, including long-time collaborator Gary Griffin (Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing). Initial financing came from VH1′s ‘Rock Docs’ strand, with Cabin Creek providing part of the production and completion funds. Submarine Entertainment is handling sales at TIFF.
Kopple did a minimal amount of research prior to production beginning in August 2013, preferring to uncover her characters throughout the shoot.
“I want to know who somebody is by seeing them, feeling them and looking them in the eye, rather than through all this prescribed stuff that people think they’re about,” she explains.
Once told by a music industry executive that she was “too black, too fat, too short and too old” to have a viable career in music, Jones did not find success as a musician until age 40. A native of Augusta, North Carolina, she sang in church, in clubs and as a background singer while working as a corrections officer at Riker’s Prison and as a security guard for Wells Fargo Bank. Her singing career only began to gain momentum in the late 1990s after she met musician Gabriel Roth, who later started the Dap-Kings and Daptone Records, which released her first album in 2002.
Jones has since earned a rep as one of the fiercest live acts around, but the cancer diagnosis forced her to scale back performing. Kopple’s cameras followed Jones as she underwent chemotherapy and moved into the home of a nutritionist friend to recover. Meanwhile, her illness compounded financial pressures faced by Daptone ahead of the release of the group’s fourth album, Give The People What They Want.
“My first day of shooting was the day that her hair was being cut and shaved,” Kopple says. “Which very quickly gets you into the most intimate part of her life – the most transitional part of her life.”
Unlike past documentary subjects such as Mariel Hemingway, Woody Allen, Gregory Peck and The Dixie Chicks, Jones was a performance-aware principal who turned on when the camera did – even in the most emotionally trying of scenarios.
“I think Sharon wanted to be strong for people around her,” says Kopple. “She wanted to make people laugh and she wanted to make people feel good about themselves and that actually elevated her to feel good about herself.
“When she was doing chemotherapy, she was the one who was up and keeping the entire room up and laughing and talking,” she continues. “She can make you laugh and laugh at herself so she doesn’t make anybody around her feel uncomfortable. She doesn’t like to be left out of anything – she loves to hang out with the Dap-Kings and the Dapettes. She’s just full of fun, full of excitement and she’s like a little girl. I love that.”
A pivotal scene in the film is Jones’ nerve-racked return to the stage at New York’s Beacon Theater in February 2014.
“Filming Sharon at the Beacon was one of the heaviest things I’ve ever done,” says Kopple. “I knew that she was tough, but she was scared. She didn’t want to let the fans down. She wanted to really rock like she always did. She didn’t have her hair anymore to flip around. She started to cry and she was really nervous and then she just went out there and killed it.”
Post-production was underway in early August when Thom Powers decided to program the film for TIFF. Although good news, the looming deadline meant Kopple had just over a month to finalize archival rights, color correct, create graphics and credits and make sure the music edits worked.
“You name it. We were all flying in different directions,” she says.
The doc is a personal one for Kopple for a couple of reasons. Three of her closest friends died from cancer in the past year: Woodstock organizer Lee Blumer, journalist and anti-Apartheid activist Danny Schechter and her mentor Albert Maysles. Miss Sharon Jones! is dedicated to all three.
The similarities between Kopple and Jones become apparent when she reminisces about Harlan County USA, her landmark film about a Kentucky coal mine strike, which had a 40th anniversary screening at TIFF on September 13.
“It taught me what life and death was all about,” she says. “When people told me, ‘Why does a little girl like you want to do a film like this?’ it just made me stronger. It gave me strength not to be afraid of anything or anybody; to do what I thought was right. It’s one of the most important films in my life.”
Miss Sharon Jones! screens at TIFF on Friday (September 18) at 12:30 p.m. at the Scotiabank Theatre, and will next play at the DOC NYC festival in November.