“It’s been a long week,” Jessica Edwards told the audience assembled for a special screening of “Mavis!,” her extraordinary profile of Mavis Staples, last Thursday at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. “And on my flight here, the only thing that kept me going was knowing that I was going to have the joy of seeing Mavis sing.”
Planned well in advance of Election Day, the film, which was just released on DVD and currently available on HBO Go, may just be the perfect diversion, a truly jubilant celebration of the deep-voiced songstress that at once allows the audience to get lost in the transcendent notes that only she can hit – it remains fitting that her most famous hit with her family band, The Staples Singers, is “I’ll Take You There” – but also confronts how she was able to adapt to the reality of the times during a six decades-long career and elevated the culture in the process. In fact, when after the screening, moderator Chris Willman asked if there was any trouble finding dramatic tension in Staples’ story, when it hardly fits the rise and fall mold of other successful documentaries about musicians such as Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain, Edwards could only stifle a chuckle to herself in contemplating the question, quickly rattling off career highlights such as “touring with Martin Luther King Jr. … inspiring Prince and [Bob] Dylan — that’s not boring.”
However, Willman was right to ask since “Mavis!” doesn’t only feel refreshing because of its subject, but also in stepping away from what audiences have come to expect of music-related documentaries. Though the singer admits on screen, “I may not be quite as frisky as I used to be” (but adds “But I don’t act that way”), Edwards’ vibrant film would seem to contradict that at every turn, both in presenting the singer, 75 years old at the time of filming, having to fight her crew to get back on stage for multiple encores, and stylistically taking cues from her indefatigability and ability to surprise audiences, rarely staying in any one place for too long. Rolling through Staples’ history of growing up in the “Dirty Thirties” in the Southside of Chicago where her family was inspired to mix together genres such as gospel and the blues to ultimately finding ways to turn King’s sermons into freedom songs, all the way to ultimately surviving the disco era where the raw emotionality of her voice was rediscovered by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, “Mavis!” frequently earns the exclamation point of its title, unrelenting in its capacity to entertain.
While the filmmaker can’t break away from the traditional formula completely, she has an ear for great stories and is wise to approach Staples’ story from the present, selectively drawing on the past to illuminate the person Staples has become, with her ongoing vitality to this day making what forays there are into her history come alive. Edwards, who said she was turned on to the project after seeing Staples at a concert in Brooklyn and shocked to discover no film had been made about her life, confessed she had to lose many gems that she ultimately pulled the film back in time too much, including a section of Staples’ relationship with Mahalia Jackson, who the singer considered an idol and then a mentor. (Footage of Jackson and Staples singing together at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 was said to be in too rough shape to include, but Edwards said that Staples recounting their friendship, among other great stories, appear as DVD extras.)
Staples had long resisted other filmmakers’ attempts to tell her story, thinking “I’ve told this so many times already myself,” but warmed to Edwards, whom she called “so gracious” and could appreciate that a story about her meant telling the larger story of her family. Clearly, she adores the film, noting how special it was to see her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, back on the big screen. One of her favorite moments from “Mavis!” is actually a piece of archival footage of the Staples Singers performing, “Let’s Do It Again,” the sexually suggestive Curtis Mayfield-penned hit that the God-fearing Pops only performed at the urging of Mayfield and his daughters, who wanted to hear themselves on the big screen. With “Mavis!,” Staples was afforded that opportunity once more, with the film enjoying a successful festival run across the country since premiering at SXSW in 2015, leading up to a possible Oscar bid to accompany the Kennedy Center Honor that she will be receiving in December. Although she previously performed for Kennedy Center Honors tributes to Paul McCartney and Al Green, Staples is looking forward to accepting one herself, saying she could’ve done a cartwheel when she found out about it.
“So much has happened since this movie I told Jessica she should put ‘To Be Continued…’ at the end of the movie,” said Staples, who soon got up for a rousing short performance of some songs. Upon looking at the nearby chair on stage, she rolled her eyes, telling the crowd, “I’m not sitting down.”