A few years ago, filmmaker Jessica Edwards went to Prospect Park to see the great Mavis Staples in concert. The show deeply inspired Edwards, so she went searching for a documentary about the singer, thinking there had to be one out there. She was familiar with Staples’ music through her work with the legendary Staple Singers, led by Mavis’ father Pops, and then later as a solo artist whose recent albums were produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, but Edwards wanted more.
“I wanted to know as much as I [could] about her,” Edwards says. “And then Netflix didn’t have anything and I was like, ‘Is it possible that’s nobody’s made this film yet?’ Filmmakers should make films they want to watch. I wanted to watch a movie about Mavis.”
So Edwards, whose company Film First is based in Brooklyn, made her own movie about the singer.
The result is Mavis!, which will premier on HBO on Feb. 29. The documentary tells the story of Staples and her famous singing family. Along with Staples herself, Mavis! features interviews with Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Cropper, Chuck D and Jeff Tweedy.
Edwards recalls the first time she approached Staples about filming her for the documentary. “I think initially she was like, ‘Really, c’mon! Do we have to do this?’ Mavis is so humble and kind and she would never do it if it was just about her. But we really wanted to talk about Pops and we really wanted to talk about her family and their connection to this musical history. I think that got her on board.”
Mavis! traces the career of the Staple Singers from their gospel roots in the ’50s through their involvement in the Civil Rights movement throughout the ’60s, and their huge popularity during the ’70s with the soul hits “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” The documentary also charts Mavis Staples’ solo work, which has included collaborations with Prince and Jeff Tweedy.
Edwards admits that she learned a lot during the film’s production.
“I knew about her involvement in the civil rights movement but I didn’t realize the depth and friendship that Dr. King had with the family,” she says. “All of the Prince connection, that stuff is wild and crazy. The Staple Singers really were part of the folk music as well, which was kind of shocking, too. I think the biggest thread for me and the thing I came away with was that I think it’s really hard as an artist to move out of your own genre of music. I think people try all the time, but I don’t know that it’s always with such great success. The thing with the Staple Singers is that they played gospel and they played R&B and they played soul and all this other stuff, but the message of their music never changed.”
One of the most poignant moments in the movie occurs when Staples and her sister Yvonne are in the studio listening to the playback of “Friendship,” a song Pops recorded before his death in 2000 for his then-unfinished solo album. The album was posthumously released last year as Don’t Lose This and completed by Tweedy. In the documentary, we see Staples weep when she hears her father’s track through the speakers. It’s a scene that also gets Edwards, too.
“That record came to fruition during the making of that film,” says Edwards. “It really solidified for me [that] this relationship with her dad was just so important. It was important before the record came in, but it became this great narrative piece that we were really able to honor the family and to have her be able to look back at her family who were really this true inspiration for her to keep singing.”
Prior to the film’s premiere at Austin’s South By Southwest festival last year, Edwards offered to come to Staples’ hometown of Chicago to screen the film for her. “She was like, ‘No, I’m gonna go [to SXSW]. I’m gonna sit in the theater and watch it with my people.’ I was obviously very nervous because she hadn’t seen it before. And so I sat behind her. She laughed and she cried, she was so happy to see Pops really young and it was very, very sweet. The first time Dylan came on the screen–she started giggling like she was 17.”
“When I would see Pops and us as young kids, and the different songs we were singing, it would take my mind back to when we learned those songs,” Mavis Staples told me about the film recently for Rolling Stone while promoting her new album Livin’ on a High Note. “It just brought back so many memories that had me breaking down. I had told them that I didn’t really think I could sit and watch myself. Sometimes after I hear my record, I don’t like to hear it with other people. I’d like to hear it myself. To sit in a theater with all these people and watch myself and my family–it’s beautiful.”
Mavis!, directed by Jessica Edwards, will broadcast on Feb. 29 at 9pm ET on HBO.