Filmmaker captures a still vibrant legend
Jessica Edwards’ Mavis! makes its national television debut this month on HBO. The film on legendary gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples — still singing powerfully in her mid-seventies — made its Twin Cities premiere last November in St. Paul, and it premieres on HBO February 22 (check local listings).
Edwards attended the St. Paul screening and took audience questions afterwards. She recalled watching Staples’ reactions while seeing the film for the first time at a film festival in Texas. “I sat behind her, trying to gauge how it was going,” remembers the director. “She was crying, laughing and started giggling like she was 15-years-old.”
It was at the tender age of 15 that Staples began performing with her father and her sisters, which kick-started a six-decade-plus musical career that crossed multiple genres. Staples applied chameleon-like skills when needed over the years to transform herself and adapt to the times.
“We filmed her for 18 months, about 10 concerts and three sit-down interviews, and a number of extra things,” explains Edwards, who admits it’s hard to squeeze a person’s life, especially one as rich and colorful as Staples’, in less than 90 minutes.
“There’s tons of stuff,” including her mentee-mentor relationship with famed singer Mahalia Jackson, that didn’t make the final cut, but hopes to include it in a later DVD version, she says.
But what did wind up in the first documentary on this legend is well worth watching. It is a well presented autobiographically without being historical. The film includes Staples’ unreleased work with Prince, and also features on-screen interviews with Bob Dylan, who said how much she and her family were influential in his early work.
Rapper Chuck D and others are also included. “The idea that Chuck D. was eight years old, sitting in his mother’s arms and jamming to ‘Let’s Do It Again.’ These are the kind of threads I wanted to connect her to,” states Edwards of Staples’ cross-generational impact on music and musicians. She proudly calls Staples “the Forrest Gump of American music.”
If you don’t know Staples or her music, you will by watching Mavis! If you are already a Mavis fan, you’ll come away with a new appreciation after watching Edwards’ documentary.
“My biggest fear in making the film was to treat this as a historical document, which it wasn’t at all,” contends Edwards. “I didn’t want it to feel historical, so we focused on her 75th year [of life] as a framework.” And Mavis! stayed true to this by presenting Staples in the here-and-now.
“I was attracted to her because she is so vibrant and vital now,” adds Edwards of Staples. “She blossomed into this artist at 65-years-old. I want to spread the gospel of Mavis so that everybody can experience it.”
Edwards expressed her excitement on getting her film on HBO: “[It] was huge for us. They
came to us shortly after it was aired in Austin [Texas],” recalls Edwards.
After the Q&A, Edwards talked to the MSR, who previously published a pre-screening interview with her in late October of last year.
“I’m so glad,” responded Edwards, smiling when told how impressively done Mavis! was after seeing it for the first time. “She [Staples] did perform with everybody. Country singers have performed with her. She ran the gamut.
“What’s interesting now is that she’s attracting a new generation, which is my generation,” said Edwards. “White, young kids who may have been interested and knew some of her music and know the Staples Singers, are now discovering her entire catalog, which is lucky for us that the music is still there. That’s the best part.”
As some documentaries seemingly want to show a “warts and all” account on musicians, this wasn’t the case for Edwards’ film on Staples. “Mavis really doesn’t have that in her life,” she said. “It’s so shocking to people that there is this…African American performer who truly comes from a stable [family], with love and support. Let’s see more of that.”
If you missed it here locally last November, you shouldn’t miss it this time around when it premieres on HBO February 22.
“I feel real strongly that she is an African American woman, an older African American woman who can be a role model,” concludes Edwards on Staples. “She’s 75 and I am half her age. She’s been doing it her whole life.”
Check local listings to find Mavis! on HBO. Visit www.mavisfilm.com for more information.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.