Barbara Kopple has a lot to celebrate this weekend.
In addition to her 70th birthday, her newest documentary, Miss Sharon Jones!, opens in theaters today, adding another gem to her formidable directing career.
Kopple is best known for her intimate and immersive documentary style, with credits spanning 40 years. Her most memorable films fall into two unique categories: Harlan County USA and American Dream, each of which won her an Oscar, shed light on the struggles of Midwestern workers’ rights advocates, while Running from Crazy and Shut up and Sing focus on larger-than-life figures battling personal, yet public, adversity.
Her newest documentary feature, Miss Sharon Jones, falls in the latter category. The film centers on the inspiring resiliency of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the acclaimed funk and R&B group based in Brooklyn, as they plan a 2014 tour immediately after lead singer Jones’ life-changing stage 2 pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
Jones may be just under five feet tall, and her parent’s youngest child, but her personality more than makes up for her stature. Born in South Carolina in the late ’50s, but raised in Brooklyn, Jones had her share of hardship growing up. She was the only one of her siblings to go to college and before finding her place in the music industry worked as a corrections officer at Rikers Island. In the documentary, she reminisces about a candy store clerk who taught his parrot to call her and other black children the N-word; later on, as a musician, industry professionals called her “too fat, too black, too short and too old” to make it.
Some performers hit the stage with such intensity and charm it’s impossible to look away. Jones is one of them. As charming and engaging she is in Kopple’s lens, it’s difficult to believe that this woman, singing her heart out in church or energetically fishing on a river, is fighting a life-threatening disease. She’s bold and open with her feelings, even as her life takes an unpredictable turn. And the music, of course, lives in this emotional rawness.
Kopple and her crew began filming with Jones and the Dap-Kings immediately upon learning about her diagnosis. Although it takes Jones’s disease as a focus, it’s a film about the power of honest friendship in the midst of adversity.
Ailish Elzy, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In the film, the band performs on both big stages and much smaller studios. Can you talk about the logistics of filming those scenes?
Barbara Kopple (BK): Well, the scene at the Beacon Theater was for me the most incredible scene in the whole film. Backstage, I worked with a cameraman named Gary Griffin and it was him and me and sound. I also used to do sound for 17 years—but I’m not doing it now—and the three of us were with Sharon right before she was going to go on stage. And Sharon was just sort of sitting there. She just said, “I don’t know who Sharon is now. I don’t know if I’m gonna sit in my chair or if I’m gonna be able to dance or if I’m gonna get short-winded.” It was the first time she had ever sung in seven months; she was really nervous about it. And then we followed her to the backstage, where she sat on her chair in the backstage and she held a cup and it was shaking. She was trying to get her nerves together.
And then a few minutes later it was time for her to go on stage. And you could hear Binky going, “And here we have Miss Sharon Jones! She just kicked cancer in the ass!” Then she was standing at the curtain [like a prize fighter] ready to go in and take over. In the audience were five other cameras, and I was on the camera with which we shot all the documentary material. So we had the option to capture everything. She was wonderful. She thanked all the people from Sharon Springs. She sort of bar mitzvah’ed Dave Guy, who was leaving the band. She would get out of breath or when she forgot a few words.
Gabe Ross, the band leader and one of the starters of Daptone Records—I asked him, “Would you wear a wireless mic?” and he said, “No.” And I said, “Come on Gabe! Woody Allen wore a wireless mic when I did Wild Man Blues and you won’t?” He said “Alright, alright” and so I put the mic on him and I got to hear. Otherwise in the film we wouldn’t have heard him say, “OK, we’re ready! One, two, three!” And then when Sharon came to him and needed a few words from one of the songs, we wouldn’t have heard that, either. So it was just luck and good instinct, I think.
MM: That little moment where she forgets the line is so humanizing, but also so fitting of her character.
BK: Yeah, and we wouldn’t have heard it if he didn’t have a microphone one! Everything about Sharon is so real. I mean, she’ll just say whatever she wants. She got onto the stage during that scene and said, “New York, I am testing this on you. I don’t know how far this is going to take me.” And it made the audience feel a part of it. She wrapped her arms around them and they in returned wrapped their arms around her.
MM: In contrast to that, you shot a lot of scenes in really intimate settings: at the house where she was recovering, or in the hospital where she was getting chemo. How big is your crew for those sort of scenes?
BK: Very small, just camera sound. Me and another person, sometimes. But nobody cared about the cameras, because people were, you know, in a struggle for life and death. And what they cared about were each other, and what they cared about was getting well. We were insignificant; nobody even thought about us.
MM: There’s another scene that seems very intimate where she goes back to church and sings, and it’s probably one of the most powerful scenes in the movie.
BK: Oh, it was amazing. She was all out of breath and from going upstairs to the church. She got in the church and she just got so moved by the music and everything else; she just sang and she danced and our cameraman, Gary Griffith, did all of that in just one shot—all the singing all the dancing and sitting down. We cut away once to someone so we could make it a little bit shorter. She knew, after she had done that, that she was gonna be OK to perform at the Beacon: that she still had her voice, she still could sing, and she could still be taken away by the music and by the people around her who cared about her.
MM: The interviews with the other Dap King members are equally open and honest. How do you get people to open up for your camera?
BK: I guess I’m just very inquisitive. And I think that they want to talk. Band member Binky, for example, who’s the one on stage who says “Miss Sharon Jones!”—when I interviewed him he just said, “I really had a tough year.” He said, “My wife and I divorced and my best friend got cancer.” He didn’t talk about her as “our lead singer” or this or that; it was, “My best friend got cancer, and I can’t make a living unless I’m on the road.” They all think of each other as brothers and sisters and they want to say how they feel. People keep it all bottled up inside and when they have a moment to express themselves, it’s very important for them.
MM: What was your editing process like? Are you very hands-on?
BK: I used to be an editor myself—but I work with editors. I’m always there but I let them look at it. Anne Fratto and Jean Tsien did the editing on Miss Sharon Jones!. I always feel I want my editors to see everything first before I come into the editing room. Because I was there and I know the back story, I know what happens before, and I want them to really see what’s happening on that screen and let me know their feelings. Once they’ve seen everything then we start the discussion.
I want them to see what we’ve actually captured without knowing that story because they’re my first audience. That said, I have to be there because if not then they’d make up stories about those people and that isn’t what we captured on film.
MM: As you finance your films, since you’ve been doing this for so long, has it gotten easier over the years with each project?
BK: It’s never easy for financing. Never. You always have to fight and struggle and want to continue on, because you want to make the most seamless film and you need time to do that. But it is easier now because I think this is the golden age of documentaries. There’re so many absolutely wonderful documentaries being made. Just this year there’s Kristi Jacobson’s film Solitary on what it means to be in solitary in prison; look at the kind of access she got. Or Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s film on Norman Lear, Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You. Or Roger Ross Williams’ film Life, Animated about a young boy with autism. The films are just brilliant and beautiful.
The wonderful thing about making documentaries is, if one of us succeeds, it’s easier for all of us to succeed. And we love it when our friends make beautiful films. We’re very supportive of that.
MM: What’s your best advice for newbie documentarians?
BK: If you find something that you’re truly passionate about, that you should talk about it. Go tell other documentary filmmakers, go tell your friends, and people will help you. Even if you can’t pay them—people will help you. Because we all want each other to succeed. So don’t be afraid. Go for it.
MM: Lastly, I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday.
BK: (Laughs) How did you find that out? Well, thank you, I’ll be at the theater. MM
Miss Sharon Jones! opens in theaters July 29, 2016, courtesy of Starz Digital.