If you know anything about the history of American documentary films, then you know the name Barbara Kopple, the two-time Oscar-winning director (for HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. and AMERICAN DREAM) of such legendary works as WILD MAN BLUES (which followed Woody Allen on a brief ragtime jazz tour), A CONVERSATION WITH GREGORY PECK; the phenomenal Mike Tyson profile FALLEN CHAMP; the captivating television mini-series “The Hamptons;” the Dixie Chicks spotlight SHUT UP AND SING; A FORCE OF NATURE; and her exceptional profile of Mariel Hemingway, RUNNING FROM CRAZY. She’s also directed feature films, such as HAVOC, and for television series such as “Homicide” and “Oz.”
I’ve interviewed Kopple several times over the year, the last time being three years ago for RUNNING FROM CRAZY, during which, we briefly talked about her beginning work on MISS SHARON JONES!, an outstanding piece about the Grammy-nominated musical powerhouse, which deals quite directly with her struggles with pancreatic cancer, while trying to keep her band, The Dap Kings, from going broke while they are unable to tour as Jones recovers. I was already a great admirer of Jones, but this doc is nothing short of transformative. You will be moved by both the music and the narrative and positive energy that Jones embodies. The film is making its way across the country, and you should seek it out like your life depended on it.
It should be noted that when I did this interview with Kopple, it had not yet been announced that Jones’s battle with cancer continues. Although she beat her original bout, cancer has returned to other parts of her body in recent months, but she continues to perform (I just saw her open for Hall & Oates in recent months) as she goes through another round of treatment. She’s an inspiration and Kopple captures her spirit beautifully. Please enjoy my talk with Barbara Kopple…
Capone: I ran into you briefly at SXSW a few weeks ago. That’s where I saw the film. I asked a question during the Q&A, even, which I never do.
Barbara Kopple: What question did you ask?
Capone: It was the one about the sequence in the church. Were you expecting anything like that to happen during when you took your cameras into that church with her? It's like she became possessed and started dancing like we hadn’t seen her do up to that point.
BK: You know what? We love the church scene. But the scene that was the most powerful for me was the scene when she played at the Beacon. I mean, I filmed her backstage, and she didn’t know who she was going to be, whether she’d be short winded, whether she’ll forget all of her words, whether she would just stand behind the microphone and not do her James Brown dancing. For me, that took such courage.
Then we filmed her backstage just sitting there, and she was holding a drink, and her hands were shaking holding the drink, so I knew she was really nervous, then when it was time, and she knew they were going to call her out, she stood at the curtain and almost looked like, from the back this really strong figure, like Mike Tyson or somebody going out to fight, getting her energy up. Then she got out there, and what was amazing too was the Dap-Kings who have been her family for so long, really knowing when she was short winded, and then playing riffs and even when she forgot her words, which she knew she might, giving her her words, and her just having the courage and the perseverance and the stamina to get in front of…I don’t know how many the Beacon holds, but it was full, and doing that. And that to me was the most amazing scene of all. I knew she was going to be alright after that.
Capone: The whole movie basically builds to that, and if ever there was a crowd who was ready to support the artist they were going to see that night it was that crowd at the Beacon. They had to have known a lot of what lead up to that moment, and they were just with her the whole time. It was a wonderful, loving experience to watch.
BK: I know. But also so beautiful, such resilience from her, such power from her and really thinking, where do you get this incredible power?
Capone: The main reason the church scene affected me so much is because I wasn’t expecting it. And you shoot it very differently. It’s an almost entirely an unbroken take of her suddenly exploding with energy.
BK: Well, she never stopped.
Capone: You have to hold your breath while it’s happening.
BK: It’s true. It’s so true.
Capone: Is there anything different about your approach to making a film about an individual versus your more issue-oriented work?
BK: Well, the issue-oriented work always has characters. For me, you can’t tell a story without the people, and even if it’s, you know, Harlan County or Mike Tyson or Woody Allen in WILD MAN BLUES. Any of those films, they all have a character, and they all have people that, not to be cliche or anything, that really stand up and go for it or not.
Capone: The difference would be a lot of times when we walk into a film about Mike Tyson or Woody Allen or the Dixie Chicks or Sharon Jones, we have some knowledge of those people going into it, whereas with some of the other films, we have no idea who we’re going to meet.
BK: That’s exciting. And you’re right. And it’s exciting for me as a filmmaker to see who’s going to emerge, and also things that happen. People say, “I don’t want to be in the film. Don’t use anything of me.” And so you go, “Okay, I won’t.” And then the film shows to them, and they say, “Why wasn’t there more of me?” And you say, “Because you asked me not to use more of you.”
Capone: Who originally put you together with Sharon?
BK: Steve Mintz and Brad Abramson, and I had done a film with them called WOODSTOCK: NOW AND THEN, about the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, and they called up and said, “How would you like to do a film about Sharon Jones?” And I said, “Are you kidding? I would love it.”
Capone: So you knew who she was before this?
BK: I knew her music vaguely, but I didn’t know who she was. I learned who she was.
Capone: Who in her camp sort of approached these guys then?
BK: Alex Kadvan.
Capone: So it was her manager, who was featured quite prominently in the movie?
BK: Beautiful, sweet, loving, amazing person—the manager in the film who really emerges.
Capone: Did this all come together before or after her diagnosis?
BK: After her diagnosis. My first shoot—and we didn’t have a contract, we didn’t have anything—happened after Alex called and said, “Sharon’s going to be cutting off her dreads today.” I said, “I will be there.” So I drove up to Cooperstown, and that was my first shoot and the first day I ever met Sharon.
Capone: Wow, that day?
BK: That day. That day.
Capone: That’s a hard scene to watch, too.
BK: Yeah, it’s all about her transformation.
Capone: Although the scene right after where she’s looking for a wig is pretty great.
BK: It’s wonderful, because then you get her personality. You get her laughter, just throwing the thing on and “No, no, no, no.” Of course, she never wore one. That was all the first day too.
Capone: Did you get a sense why she or Alex was interested in that experience being the one that was captured on film?
BK: Well, it was just starting. We had all agreed to do the film, and the contract wasn’t ready, but I never care about that. And I said “Please keep me posted on what she’s doing.” So he called up and said, “Okay, this is what she’s doing.” I said, “I’ll be there.”
Capone: She’s so candid and open about every aspect of this time in her life. I was going to ask if that took time to develop, but if you’re coming in on that day in her life, it had to be almost instantaneous.
BK: It was. It’s who Sharon is. She just lets everybody know everything about her. She finds a way. If her health isn’t good, she’ll tell you. If her health is good, she’ll tell you. If she’s angry about something, she’ll tell you. She’s not shy and retiring. But she has so much perseverance and so much joy, and what she taught me was really about not being negative about life and being positive about life. Every time she would go into the chemo room, all the people would look forward to seeing her.
Capone: You get a sense she was friends with everybody who worked there.
BK: Yeah, she loves people. She’ll talk to anybody. She’s down to earth. She’s the real deal.
Capone: Is a film about Sharon Jones made perhaps a little easier by being able to focus on the music too? You could just cut to the music any time and light up the theater.
BK: Yep. Everything in it is Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, period. Every single moment.
Capone: In terms of when to go to the music and when to stick to the other parts of her story, how did you find the balance there?
BK: Well, I think when we needed to move, to go somewhere else, whether she was going to Augusta or she was going to the Beekman farm or to keep the story rolling, to keep it moving, to let you remember in the beginning of the film: this is a great artist. This is a person who does incredible music and don’t forget this for a minute, even though you see her in a really terrible situation.
Capone: It kept reminding me like this is what she’s striving to get back to.
BK: Yes. And this is who she’s about. This is her. They told her [in the beginning of her career] she was too old, too black, too short to be able to make it, and she showed them.
Capone: One of the most fascinating things that you do, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a music documentary, are the discussion that the band members have about their finances and their healthcare. That’s really inside-baseball stuff. Where did the idea come from to use that and to show that she has a lot of people counting on her to get better?
BK: Well, I think that it’s really important for people to understand inside. One of the band members says “This is all I have. I tour. And if I don’t have that, I don’t have anything. All at once, my wife and I got divorced, my best friend got cancer, and I’m not working. I’ve lost my job for a while, so this means a lot.” They’re each other’s bread and butter. They’ve been working with each other for 19-20 years. They know each other so well and they depend on each other.
Capone: Did you get a sense that Sharon felt that pressure, outside of just her own health?
BK: Yeah, of course. Because she would get angry in the film a little. She would say, “Nobody cares about me.” One of the few pity parties she had: “Nobody cares about me; they just care about money.” Then she said to Alex, “That’s all you cared about,” then I saw Alex crying. Then she says, “I’ll never say that again.”
Capone: That is one of those moments that just broke my heart, because you know she doesn’t mean it, but at that moment…
BK: She likes to blow off steam like we all do and she’s good at it.
Capone: The film had the VH1 logo in front of it, but you said playing it on that channel was no longer an option, so they gave it back to you, correct?
Capone: Is it definitely going to play in theaters at some point? Because it needs to be heard through a badass sound system.
BK: It does. And for Sharon, to help her sell the million records she wants to, it needs for her to be more of a household name.
Capone: What is it you would like people to take away form this film? What do you want us to know most about Sharon?
BK: I think that what I’d like to see is that when we work, even I as a filmmaker, we have our family and we have the people who have our backs and who love us, and without that, you couldn’t get through any of this. So if people could take that away, I really think that this is a film for me about family and about friendship and about faith.
Capone: I know she’s back on the road this summer, so all is well still?
BK: Well, she has little bits of things she has to take care of, but she’s good, and for the rest of her life, she’ll have to like every couple of months go in and get checked and make sure that everything is okay. She’s going to go through her ups and downs, but she realizes that and she wants to do her music and live a long and beautiful life.
Capone: Do you know what your’e doing next?
BK: Yes. I’m doing a film about Gigi Gorgeous, who’s transgender, and she was on YouTube [the pay service YouTube Red is set to premiere the as-yet-untitled film] since the time she was a he—she was Greg Gorgeous [Lazzarato]—since she was 15 years old, and it’s about her transition. She also kept a video diary that nobody has ever seen of her transition, and it’s about who she is today, which is this glamorous, beautiful woman. She’s 24. And I totally love her. She’s gone through a lot, but she’s a total sunshine.
I just did one of my last shoots in Toronto—she’s Canadian—with her family. Her brothers and her father are so beautiful and supportive and loving. It was a wonderful experience. Talking about transformation, you’re going to see somebody totally transform over the course of this film and maybe, if I do it well, you’re going to forget that she was ever transgender and just see her as a girl having a good time.
Capone: That’s great. You said you’re almost done shooting?
BK: Yes. I may have one more shoot.
Capone: Thank you so much, Barbara. It was great to talk to you again, and best of luck with this.