Thursday eve ning, Hollywood gathered for a screening of the documentary “Miss Sharon Jones!,” which deals with the R&B singer’s struggles with pancreatic cancer and her triumphant return to music.
The following day, the music industry mourned Jones’ death at 60.
The screening was part of TheWrap’s Awards Season Screening Series. Awards editor Steve Pond moderated the post-screening Q&A with Jones’ former assistant manager, Austen Holman.
“She is fighting,” said Holman, who had last spoken to Jones about a week earlier. “She’s had some ups and downs, and right now she’s going through one of the down parts — but she is Sharon and she can’t help but fight.”
Holman met Jones only a few months before her May 2013 diagnosis. Shortly thereafter, executives from VH1, which had always been a fan of Jones’ music, heard that she was sick and wanted to commission a documentary film to help bring her story to the world.
When Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County, USA”) expressed interest in directing, Holman realized it was destined to be an A-list project rather than “a little webisode that’s going to go online and disappear tomorrow.” But there was still the question of Jones’ strength.
Holman and all those involved treated Jones delicately during the filming, never wanting anyone to think that she was being exploited. But shutting herself off from the rest of the world wasn’t what Jones was about.
“The thing about Sharon is that she is a performer through and through, and she is happiest in the spotlight,” Holman said. “So as much as she might say she didn’t want the cameras around, I think that was the outlet for her to connect with her fans.
“She missed that. She missed being able to be around people that could feed off of her energy. This was the next best thing for her.”
Jones changed as the disease took over. The woman that Holman knew as having “so much spunk and energy” began to complain of exhaustion.
“We started noticing that something was wrong,” she said. “Her eyes were really yellow and she was complaining about being tired. I had not worked with her before, I just assumed that this was a 57-year-old woman who had been doing photo shoots for 12 hours — of course she was tired. But that was the first alarm.”
Jones’ story certainly provides good material for a movie. Her first album wasn’t released until she was in her 40s; before that, she worked as a corrections officer at Rikers Island prison and as an armored car driver for Wells Fargo. Her big break came in 1996, where she landed a gig as a backup singer in professional recording sessions.
She and her band the Dap-Kings released their first record in 2002, playing a repertoire inspired by 1960s soul and ’70s funk. Their debut album also launched Daptone Records.
“Barbara captures moments in the film where you really get to know the different facets of Sharon,” Holman said. “Besides that, the music played a really great role, the way that the soundtrack matched up, and the way that the movie flows and the moments that you feel things. They did a beautiful job.
“We are also lucky that we have this forever. It’s a gift.”
“Miss Sharon Jones!” includes a new song that is eligible in the Best Original Song category at the Oscars this year. Jones is a co-writer on the song, which contains autobiographical lyrics and is titled, sadly, “I’m Still Here.”
Holman said: “I cry when I hear that song almost every time. There’s a lot a feeling if you really listen to those lyrics. That’s her life in one song.”
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