Mavis! is Jessica Edwards’ joyful, rollicking portrait of the living legend Mavis Staples. It is more than this though, it is also a wonderful journey through America’s social and musical history. There are documentaries about good bands and good singers, many of which are very good, but Mavis! is
one of those rare films that is about a singer and a band that is at the heart heart of 20th century musical history.
This history is framed by footage of Mavis now, in her 70s, preparing for a series of shows. She talks to the camera backstage, in cars, in hotels, her sister forever by her side, a smile always on her face. We hear from her band, from contemporaries (Bonnie Raitt turns up yet again.) and from those she played with. This film, fittingly, takes The Last Waltz as its model – it’s part travelogue, part historical document, part biography. It’s great how what we see in the archive footage fundamentally informs the interviewees and Mavis herself as we see her development right through to the wonderful performer she still is. It’s a terrific way to show us the entangled nature of her times and collaborators. First and foremost though, it’s a showcase for a woman whose music and joyously infectious personality helped change modern America. And yet she’s always remained grounded: she says,”I’m just everyday people.”
The film begins in Chicago, though the Staples were originally from Mississippi, where Pops, the father and one of the kindest looking men you’ll ever see, began a family gospel group. Mavis, along with her siblings Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne had been singing in church since they were nine. From their beginnings as a gospel group, Pops, with his Charley Patton guitar playing, began taking the group into the folk and blues realm. This was seen as something of a crossing of musical and cultural lines in the south, playing gospel in a blues style. It was Mavis though that kept the gospel feeling alive in the group, singing to the audience in a kind of religious call and response she called the “shout”. There is great footage of a version of “Wade in the Water” that shows Mavis’ fantastic, almost frenzied style of singing.
With the sixties came the cultural upheavals that would affect Pops and the group the most. Pops became enamoured with the works of Martin Luther King and the group began writing and singing freedom songs. As Pops would say, if they can preach it,we can sing it. The group would become the musical voice of the Civil Rights Movement and became involved with NAACP. This involvement is still going on, Mavis says, she still sings freedom songs as part her show today.
It’s a testament to the importance of The Staples Singers in music and history that one of their greatest admirers was Bob Dylan, who appears numerous times in the film to tell us the effect their songs had on him, as part of the protest movement and as an artist, and in return they were taken with the lyrics of his “Blowin’ in the Wind.” There is fantastic footage of a young Dylan and the Staples during a television recording of “Folk Songs and More Folk Songs!” He even asked Pops for Mavis’ hand in marriage. Looking back on it now, she concedes, “Maybe we smooched.”
The film is not all glory hallelujah however. After the group’s triumphant performances at Newport and Wattstax, and their success on the Stax label through the 70s re-branded as a soul act, the group stopped recording and Mavis went off on a solo career which never really came near the heights she reached with her family. She recorded two albums with Prince for Pailsy Park, one of which was never released. Following this the group decided to reform though Pops fell ill and passed away during the recording and that record too remained unfinished. She persevered though, and this segment of the film brings us up to date and follows her partnership with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who would produce her latest album “Your Are Not Alone”, resulting in a long overdue Grammy win in 2011. Although this final recognition of an amazing career is heart-warming to see, we see Mavis at her happiest during a scene where she is listening to Pops’ final recordings, lovingly restored by Jeff Tweedy.
The one area where the film is reluctant to go, either by design or through Mavis’ reluctance to talk about it, is her private life. Despite a brief mention or two of partnerships and marriage, this area of Mavis’ private seems to be off limits. She mentions not having children but never says why, and that is about as far into personal matters as the film dare delve.
Even now, at 75, Mavis has the energy and drive and desire to perform of one half her age, and the film captures this remarkable spirit perfectly. Looking back on the screening, the proper reaction to the wonderful Mavis! should not have been the sustained round of applause, deserved though it was. No, more fitting would have been a loud and resounding “Amen!”
Director: Jessica Edwards
Writer: Jessica Edwards
Stars: Mavis Staples, Adam Ayres, Gene Barge
Runtime: 80 mins