In 2013, a family outing to a rainy outdoor show in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park by then film publicist Jessica Edwards turned into something else. The otherworldly musical experience compelled Edwards to tell the definitive story of legendary singer and activist Mavis Staples. The Canadian filmmaker and producer kept trying to calm her then fussy two-year-old daughter down as the down home, 76-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer took center stage.
That was a magic moment for Edwards. “Mavis [Staples] came on, and the sky cleared,” recalls a relaxed Edwards from one of the green rooms during SCAD Atlanta’s #aTVfest. “The stars came out. Everything around her was very quiet. I was so absorbed and engaged. It felt spiritual. I felt moved.”
Edwards’ feature-length directorial debut, Mavis!, goes beyond merely putting together a chronological life and career retrospective immortalizing the revered, soul-stirring vocalist. Running approximately 85 minutes, Mavis! time travels and follows the husky-voiced singer’s beginnings as part of the groundbreaking family act, The Staple Singers, who were neighbors to veteran talents Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and Johnnie Taylor.
The Staple Singers firmly planted its feet in gospel music before venturing into “freedom songs” and uplifting Stax Records soul music. Telling the story primarily via performance reels, home movies, tear sheets, film clips and photo albums, Mavis! examines the family’s ties to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., along with experiencing racism and segregation first hand.
Self-funding the project and originally cold calling Mavis’ management about making the documentary, Edwards examines Mavis’ romantic relationship with then-young folk singer Bob Dylan, the singer’s brief marriage and divorce, her uncompromising attitude when confronted with shady music industry practices and of course, her musical evolution spanning various decades and styles of music.
Appearances throughout Mavis! from important figures such as Bonnie Raitt, Julian Bond, Sharon Jones, Chuck D, Al Bell, Prince, Steve Cropper and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy magnify how Mavis continues her reign as a musical influencer. Still mesmerized by Mavis’ stage presence, Edwards went home following the outdoor concert three years ago and downloaded everything on iTunes she could find. Further admitting to not really being familiar with the Staples’ extensive catalog, it puzzled Edwards to find out there was no definitive film focusing on Mavis.
“Nobody had done this story of her,” says Edwards, an avid fan of live music. “I watched all of these little pieces come out of that and knew this woman’s story had to be told.” Edwards originally made a list of 100 potential interviewees for Mavis! She settled on including strictly the perspectives of Mavis’ collaborators, family members and neighbors but wanted Mavis’ voice to remain front-and-center.
“When you see that love and light she brings, that came from her,” confirms Edwards. “We were just a conduit to her telling her own story. She’s putting her whole soul up there for you. That’s her calling. She made me believe it.”
Mavis!, which debuted at South By Southwest (SXSW) last year, is a solid reminder for Edwards, the self-publisher behind Tell Me Something: Advice from Documentary Filmmakers, how much work and collaboration goes into making cinema and storytelling. The filmmaker behind the award-winning short documentaries Seltzer Works, Tugs and The Landfill had the daunting task of selecting which parts of Mavis’ life had to hit the cutting room floor.
“I’m never gonna cover everything,” says the Concordia University and The New School alumnae. “You have to act as your audience’s advocate. At the end of the day, I had to serve the film. As soon as I let go and let the footage guide us to what needed to happen, we had a movie.”
Fearing that she could be too verbose anytime she explains something pertaining to creating Mavis!, a detail-oriented Edwards took a few minutes to also identify the transferable skill set from her publicity career, something she refers to as “keeping a hundred balls in the air at the same time.” “You have to be wholly persistent,” continues Edwards. “You need to be actually following up, managing a bunch of different stuff and negotiating with people.”
Mavis! documents the veteran singer and road warrior whose career now spans more than six decades continuing to entertain audiences with the same enthusiasm and infectious spirit she’s had from the very beginning. She interacts and prays on-screen with her band members and travels alongside her surviving siblings. Far from being a diva or prima donna, the misty-eyed Grammy winner who earned her second Grammy earlier this year and simultaneously released another solo album, Livin’ on a High Note, even shared the lost master recordings from her late father, “Pops” Staples.
It still overwhelms Edwards to have her first feature film come from a human subject with such an open and giving spirit. Standing primarily in the rear of the theater to witness the expressions on the audience members’ faces, Edwards aspires to let her future work echo with the very same drive, passion and relentless work ethic Mavis possesses.
“You have artists and performers that are one thing on-stage but different things back of the stage,” insists Edwards. “That is not Mavis Staples at all. She’s still trying new things. She’s not just going up there singing ‘Respect Yourself.’ She made me feel so good and super relaxed. She was my grandmother in 15 minutes.”
Mavis! premieres on Mon. Feb. 29 at 9 p.m. EST on HBO. Check local listings for channel information.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.