A cancer diagnosis is tremendous, complex and frighteningly daunting to comprehend and live with. If you are stricken with this terrifying disease, you can do one of two things: let the reality consume you and allow the disease to eat your body until there's nothing left; or look it straight in the face and fight it, regardless of the outcome. Sharon Jones is determined to do the latter.
In the spring of 2013, the 60-year-old front woman of the critically acclaimed band Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings received news that she had stage-two pancreatic cancer. Armed with her undying faith and ageless resilience, Jones not only chose to beat it, but also had the courage to chronicle her journey in the documentary, Miss Sharon Jones!
Directed by Barbara Kopple, Miss Sharon Jones! follows its namesake, a former corrections officer and wedding singer turned international soul powerhouse, for nine months as she fought the disease. In the film, viewers watch as Jones has surgery, endures a delayed album release, and talks with fellow cancer patients while waiting for chemotherapy—all while planning a world tour that’s scheduled to begin less than a year after her diagnosis.
The film is as heartbreaking as it is triumphant. Footage of Jones crying as a barber cuts her trademark locs, and images of the gargantuan scars on her abdomen from surgery, are just a few examples of the trials she had to endure.
"They had to remove my gall bladder, the head of my pancreas, and more than half of my small intestine," Jones tells EBONY.com. "From June to September, I could barely walk. I couldn't eat solid food. I was really bad."
In addition to the strain on her body, the film also kept it real about the toll not being able to perform took on Jones’ finances. Medical bills piled up as the months slowly rolled by without any gigs to help bring in income.
“Our insurance was $2,000 a month," Jones explains. "Whatever I had saved up was gone. I had a mortgage that had to be paid. It was a little crazy.”
Jones' band mates were hit just as hard as many of them fought to pay rent or get home loans, while also dealing with changes like the birth of children or going through divorce. Luckily for Jones, her band never burdened her with their financial hardships.
"My band members love me so much,” she says. “They didn't call me up and let me know they were going through that. I didn't know that until I saw the movie that first night. [The band] keeping that away from me was keeping me stronger.”
Much of that strength was forged over Jones' 20-year kinship with Daptone Records co-founder and Dap Kings' bassist Gabriel Roth. The friends make their musical home in a custom built recording space in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood. While the facade is modest, the studio has produced several albums rich in funk and soul that sound just as timeless as classics from the 1960s.
“It’s all Gabe, his dream was the studio," Jones explains. “For the vocal booth, he literally tore the floor out, put in car tires and stuffed clothes in the tires and put the floor back for a certain sound. We know what we have when we go into that old raggedy building.”
In the documentary, Jones and the Dap Kings return to the stage at a sold out concert at New York's Beacon Theater. The performance was quite the trial by fire, especially given the effects chemo had on Jones’ ability to remember lyrics.
“I was very nervous. I couldn’t explain how the chemo affects your memory," Jones says. "Even now, I have to have a monitor to put some of the lyrics up. So, I knew I was going to have problems, but you know what, I get back on that horse and you ride it and it’s going to come to you.”
Aside from the challenge of reciting lyrics, Jones had to fight through physical obstacles on the legendary Manhattan stage. When the pain of the cancer and effects of chemo wore off, Jones had to deal with neuropathic pain in her legs and feet. That’s one reason Jones says she needs her fans more than they need her.
“My fans always say I inspire them, but they don’t understand what it’s like for me to walk on that stage and the bigger the audience, it’s like a drug, like a high,” she confesses. “You need to feed off that energy. So, I want that roar, that ‘I love you, Sharon.’ That got me back out there. I’m feenin’ to get back on that stage.”
Her addiction to the stage paid off. Jones’ subsequent world tour saw her regain her energy—and some of her hair. And the once delayed album, Give the People What They Want, was released in January and earned the band their very first Grammy nomination.
Today, Jones and company are touring with Hall and Oates, and while her cancer has returned, she continues to perform, taking pain pills, muscle relaxers and undergoing chemo. Though she admits she's currently only at 70-percent, Jones contends it’s enough to get her out on that stage.
"When I'm good, I wanna perform. I don't wanna just stay home and do nothing when I can take this medicine and get out and I can [sing],” she says. “When I get on that stage, the pain seems to go away."
Miss Sharon Jones! is in theaters now. To see where it's playing, visit the film's website.