Doc filmmaker Jessica Edwards explores the life and legacy of Mavis Staples.
Mavis Staples is one alluring woman.
Jeff Tweedy called her the woman he loves more than anyone else in the world other than his wife, Prince sought her out and produced two albums for her on his Paisley Park Records label, and Bob Dylan—well—the poor sap proposed marriage and was sorely rejected.
Aside from these men in the music industry, she also captured the interest of Canadian documentarian Jessica Edwards who directed the HBO music doc Mavis!, premiering Monday, February 29. While Edwards’ filmography includes true stories on trash being turned into energy and the boating industry, Mavis! is a straight-forward rockumentary on soul legend and civil rights activist Mavis Staples and her family group The Staple Singers.
Taking a page from the Academy Award-winning 20 Feet From Stardom, Mavis! explores the hardships of maintaining creative control in the industry. It also sends a positive message about staying true to yourself in what can be a tear-you-down business.
The Staples family faces many identity crises (Are they too gospel for mainstream audiences? Are they too hip for church?). In the end, they played music they wanted to play and spread messages of peace they wanted to advance through their brilliant vocals and instrumentation. Long before Beyonce was getting into “Formation,” Mavis Staples and her family were singing “freedom songs” like “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” which gave white folks a case of the uneasies. This documentary comes at an important time in our culture. So much has changed, and yet it’s still not enough.
The Staples Singers lineup went through a series of changes with different members of the Staples clan in and out, but Mavis and her father “Pops” were the two mainstays. While most gospel groups had two or three lead singers, Mavis carried her family group and continues to carry on the name to this day with headlining performances at the Newport Folk Festival where she and her family got their start decades ago. Plus, with her sister Yvonne by her side, the 76-year-old still keeps it all in the family.
The name Mavis Staples may not be as well-known as Aretha Franklin, but she’s gained some mad hipster cred with appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and her connection to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy produced her 2010 album You Are Not Alone which went on to win the Grammy for Best Americana Album. The documentary highlights this reclaim to fame and also includes her lows when she couldn’t get anyone to sign her.
Family musical acts don’t always have happy endings, but this is one story that’s uplifting. One reason why Mavis continues to perform and attract the attention of so many today is because of her positive connection to her family. The scene with Mavis listening to her now-deceased father perform is a moving testament to the power of kinship and the faith that not all show business stories end so cynically.