After witnessing Mavis Staples perform in concert several years ago, Jessica Edwards went beyond just going home and binge listening to the singer’s songbook — she produced the first feature-length documentary on the legendary singer.
The documentary Mavis!, which premiered in March at the SXSW Film Festival in Texas, is set to make its Twin Cities debut November 11 at the opening night of the 16th Annual Sound Unseen Film/Music/Arts Festival; the documentary will also air on HBO in February 2016.
“What I want is [the audience] to get the same inspiration that I did,” said Edwards in a recent MSR phone interview. “The main challenge of making the film is the fact that Mavis has this incredible history of 60-plus active years of performing. She started performing when she was in high school. The challenge when I started the movie was how am I going to put this great woman’s incredible life into an 85-minute film?”
The filmmaker recalled how blown away she was watching Staples perform live in Brooklyn, New York a few years ago. Edwards already was aware of Staples’ musical career and many of her hit songs with her family on Stax Records.
“What really drew me to her was her incredible inspiration…performing to a diverse crowd of young people, old people, Black people, White people — and she was bringing everybody together.” Edwards said she wanted to make sure her film captured “that feeling of love, that feeling of unity” that Staples puts into her singing.
Staples helped pioneer the “delta-inflected gospel sound” in the 1950s, belted out “message songs” in the 60s and 70s, and in recent years, worked with Jeff Tweedy of the rock band Wilco.
“She changed with the times but never strayed from who she was,” said Edwards of Staples, who over the course of her six-decades-plus career, touched upon “seven or eight genres of music.”
Edwards pointed out that she didn’t want the film to be like a Wikipedia entry. “I didn’t want to make that kind of movie because it would have been horribly boring. Ultimately, I didn’t want a film to be a historical documentary. Of course, we were going to cover Mavis’ history, but I wanted to make people see who she is…to see what she has been doing for so long.”
Mavis! is the first documentary on Staples and her family group, The Staple Singers, and features live performances and conversations with her, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D. and others.
“We have some amazing footage of a local Minnesota [musician] — Prince” in a recording session with Staples said Edwards.
When asked what she learned from her conversations with Staples, Edwards replied, “So much. There is a bunch of stuff we [originally] had in the movie…that we weren’t able to include.” This included Staples’ relationship with the late gospel great Mahalia Jackson, who as a mentor “taught her as a very young girl how to care for her voice and how to protect herself as a performer while on the gospel circuit,” explained the filmmaker. “Mahalia, in many ways passed the baton to Mavis.”
Edwards was also impressed by Staples turning down her invitation to see the film after it was finished. “I had offered to fly to Chicago and screen the film for her, and she said no,” recalled Edwards. “She said she was going to sit with the audience and watch it with ‘my country people.’ She watched it, and cried, and laughed — she was very gracious and kind afterwards. She really loved it.
“Ultimately, I feel very blessed that she had that kind of trust in me” said Edwards on Staples allowing her to do the documentary. “I think part of the reason she wanted to make the film, and she trusted us enough with her story, was that it was really about Pops [Mavis’ late father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples] and his legacy and his contributions to the music,” surmised Edwards. “She is humble — it is never about her.”
The 16th Annual Sound Unseen Film/Music/Art Festival kicks off November 11 at the McNally Smith College of Music, 19 Exchange Street East, St. Paul. For more information go to www.soundunseen.com or the Mavis! Facebook page.
Jessica Edwards is expected to be in attendance at the November 11 pre-film reception at 6:30 pm, followed by the film showing at 8 pm.
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