By Jonathon Sharp

The Sound Unseen film festival opens this Wednesday in St. Paul with a documentary that is pure musical jubilee. Mavis! is a joyous look at the life of Mavis Staples, whose career has spanned more than half a century, several genres and touched the lives of fans and musicians alike. And while the singer known for “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” is well into her 70s, she’s still belting out the tunes, touring, and collaborating with some of the most notable minds in music.

Actually, it’s strange that Mavis isn’t more well-known, considering how long she’s been a figure in American music. Filmmaker Jessica Edwards is a champion of the singer, and her documentary is sure to spawn a whole new set of fans. (I count myself among them.)

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In the film, the now 76-year-old Mavis comes off as absolutely genuine, devoted as ever to her family and the memory of her father, the innovative Roebuck “Pops” Staples. She seems devoid of any interest in celebrity culture. Instead, she focused her energies into making powerful music with her tremendous voice. Just to see the legion of iconic artists who adore her attests to Mavis’ musical prowess. Among them are Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Jeff Tweedy, and Prince.

While the film has been criticized for not focusing on her marriage or her personal life, there’s something so refreshing about the story of Mavis’ career. It isn’t the talent-to-substance-abuse tale so common in popular music. Instead, it’s a testament to how art brings people together, whether it be in family, friendship, collaboration or social justice.

Mavis! premiered at South By Southwest in March, and it’s playing Wednesday night at the McNally Smith College of Music. The director, Edwards, will be in attendance. For those who can’t make it, the documentary will be playing on HBO in February.

I got a chance to talk to Edwards about the making of the film, and whether or not Mavis gets the cultural credit she deserves. Here is a slightly edited version of our conversation.

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So what made you want to make a film about Mavis?

I had grown up listening to the Staples Singers. My mom had Stax Records, soul-era stuff. So I knew “Take You There,” “Respect Yourself” and some of the other more pop culture stuff, and listened to them as a teenager and in college. But then I was re-introduced to her through the Jeff Tweedy records that she did. I’m a big Wilco fan, and I fell in love with those records. We went to see her perform in Brooklyn, where I live, and it was one of the most incredible concerts I’ve ever been to. She was this incredible performer in her 70s, captivating an entire audience that was filled with young people and old people, black people and white people – such a vast demographic of folks. I was very moved by the  experience.

So I went home, and I was very excited to watch the documentary about her life. Then I checked on Netflix, and there wasn’t one. And I realized that there wasn’t really a film, or, at that point even a book, that sort of showed the range of this woman’s life. And so, I set out to make one, because I thought that was a grave injustice to not have her rich history captured.

So you just reached out to her?

I cold called her management company and sent them an email, you know, with what I had been thinking about and what I wanted to do. They had been approached before.  We spent a couple months talking and eventually got everything going. As with most documentary projects, much of it hinges on a good combination of persistence and luck.

When did you start working on this, exactly?

I saw her perform the summer of 2013.

What’s it like being around Mavis? The movie presents her in an almost unbelievably down-to-earth way. I mean, we are so used to seeing celebrity culture and she just appears so different from that. So, I’m curious what she’s like to be around.

I think that’s a really good question, and what I can say with great happiness is that the Mavis that you see on screen is the Mavis you see in real life. She is incredibly warm and really available and very kind. You walk into the room with her and she’s like your grandmother.

This is a very special person, and I think it’s hard sometimes to meet your idols. Sometimes the way they appear in the media and their persona in the world is different from who they really are in person. That’s not true with Mavis. It’s really the opposite.

I credit this with her having a really stable family life. Even though she was on the road hanging out with the Jackson 5, meeting Sly and the Family Stone, singing with Mahalia Jackson, her brothers and sisters were always around, her dad was always around, her mother was at home, keeping the home fires burning. So, as all of that fancy, celebrity stuff was going on, it was in the midst of a really stable family life.

That’s what captivated me so much as I continued to research the film and who she was in her relationships and such. That’s so rare, you know. I feel like our culture is so…that there are so many really sad stories. If you look at Michael Jackson, that’s a great example. He came up with his family too, incredibly talented, but had a very, very different outcome.

This isn’t a question, exactly. But what made the movie refreshing was that it wasn’t about talent and then substance abuse problems, which is the story with so many famous musicians. Instead, there are so many more moments of just happiness and beautiful music in Mavis!. While watching, I was trying to think of a musician whose career spans such an amazing arc. The Rolling Stones came to mind, but they are on a very different level, in terms of fame. This had me wondering: Do you think Mavis gets the credit she deserves?

No, I don’t. I really don’t.

I mean, who am I? I feel super lucky and blessed that she trusted us to make the film, but part of the motivation for that was, like, everybody needs to know that this woman…if you look at the history of her career, it’s basically the history of American music. Without a question, you can link her — and Pops and the family – directly to the way that popular American music progressed over the last 60 or 75 years. They were part, in some way, of all of that. And I don’t think enough people know that. I really don’t. If you talk to musicians or vocalists, or people who make it their business to really celebrate and honor great musicians, of course they know who Mavis is. But as far as, you know, the popular culture, I think there’s definitely more room for Staples celebrating.

I’m sure you had a bunch of material to go through, seeing as Mavis’ life was so public. I’m curious about what you wanted to hone in on?

That, of course, was the biggest challenge of making the film. Here’s 65 years of this woman’s history, try to shove it all in here. Then, I had this epiphany that, like, who wants all of that in there? Otherwise, it’s going to look like a Wikipedia entry, and that doesn’t keep the heart and soul of who she is and how her music made me feel. And so, through the course of making the film, I just kept coming back to that night in the park where I saw her perform and the way that it made me feel. And, that meant staying with Mavis as much as we could. Well, of course, the film is going to talk about her and her family’s history. But I never wanted it to feel historical.

So I kept coming back to now, to who Mavis is now, and that really guided the film. Inevitably, that meant there’s nothing in the film about Mahalia Jackson and her relationship, which is one of the heartbreaking things to leave on the cutting room floor. But, you know, I needed to keep coming back to what connected me to her – what connects many people to her – and that’s the music and her family. So, one of the criticisms we hear about the film (there aren’t many) is: You don’t talk about her personal life much. Well, first of all, Mavis’ whole life was being on the road and singing. We talk about her marriage, which was a very small part of her life, and it didn’t end well because she had to go out on the road and sing. So, it was that sense of coming back to what makes Mavis who she is now.

Were there any other things that were painful to leave out?

One of the other challenges, in terms of the early days, is that back then no one had, you know, cell phone cameras. In the late ‘50s and early ’60s, when they were out touring the South and stuff, there isn’t that much archival footage. I said to Mavis at one point, “Come on, you didn’t take a Brownie camera out with you or thought to film anything?” She was like, “No. I was 15. What did I know of cameras?” So, we had to be very careful and strategic about how we showed the early stuff. And we were lucky to get the Gospel Jubilee footage that you see in the film, which is some of their earliest televised performances.

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I thought that stuff was amazing. That Pops guitar sound…it’s been on my Spotify since I saw the movie.
I’m also curious. There are definitely some Minnesota characters in the movie. Did you reach out to Bob Dylan and Prince to talk to those guys?

Well, Bob ended up being in the film, which we were super lucky about. Prince…well, you know…You know what your neighbor is like. We had some good conversations early on about him participating in the film. He was super supportive of it, a big, big fan of hers, and still to this day is super supportive and loving, but you know, I challenge you to find the last time that guy sat for an interview. We were very lucky in that we were able to track down some of my favorite archive from some of their recordings together, so we were able to get him in the film. So that was sort of my only goal, and, you know, I really wanted to tell that story of Mavis’ solo career.

She could have been an Aretha Franklin or a Gladys Knight, those women really broke away from their groups because they had a different kind of ambition or they were just different people. With Mavis, she didn’t do that. She wanted to sing with her family. I think that her collaborations with Prince were probably some of the first times where she was like, “I’m ready to do this, ready to go out on my own and really be a solo artist.” Of course, as we say in the film, those albums didn’t do what they could have done because of circumstances. My secret hope – and, of course, I have no corroboration on this – is that Paisley Park now has gotten back the rights to those albums and they are sitting in Prince’s archive somewhere. If there was some way [to release them]…or just “The Voice,” because that album is so great…if that gets issued in the States with the accolades it so rightly deserves, that would be great, because it is a great, great album.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film is where Mavis is with Levon Helm, of The Band, at his home near the end of his life. I just have to ask: What was it like to be there and watch them sing? And when was that in relations to when he passed away?

So, that footage was filmed in 2011. So, you know, it was within a year that he passed on. That footage was shot by filmmakers who actually made a documentary about Levon. They were there at the barn, filming at the time Mavis went up there to perform at the Midnight Ramble, which is an event where groups come up to his home in Woodstock, New York and perform with him.

And The Last Waltz – [a Martin Scorsese documentary on The Band’s final show] — was one of the first music documentaries that I really fell in love with, and so, of course, I knew that not only does it have some of the best performance footage of the Staples singers, it is also just the greatest.

I think that was the first time I saw/heard Mavis.

That was the first you heard her?

Yeah, a relative gave me a copy and I was just like, “Who is this woman?” The way she would sing, the noises she makes when not singing the lyrics, you know what I mean? I hadn’t heard anything like it. To see her there with The Band, you realize that Mavis worked with everyone.

Yup. Me too. Exactly the same. I feel the exact same way.

Just as an aside – this has nothing to do with anything, but if you love The Last Waltz – watch when she starts singing, she’s sort of in the foreground and then Levon is on the drums. So, right at the beginning of her verse, she starts singing and the look on Levon’s face is priceless. If you look at his face, it will completely change the way you see their relationship. He was so in awe of her. So, if you appreciate that clip, you should go back and watch it.

Anyway…What were we talking about?

Levon Helm and that footage.

Oh, right. So the footage came to us because Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter, performed with Mavis in Brooklyn and we filmed part of those concerts. So Amy performed with her and told me while we were filming that, “Oh my God, we have tons of stuff of Mavis and Levon together. Let me share it with you, and see if there’s anything there you want to use.” So I was thinking, “Maybe there’s outtakes from the The Last Waltz,” I was trying to figure out how to use The Last Waltz and really, again, tie it to now, to who she is now. And we weren’t getting any traction with the behind-the-scenes footage, but then Levon’s estate sends me this hard drive with 25 hours of footage of Mavis and Levon jamming and talking and laughing. You know, Levon wasn’t in good shape then. The poor man was holding onto his voice by a thread. And he just changed around her, he found this voice.

So, when Amy sent us that footage it felt like we had just won the lottery. First of all, it just speaks to her, because, if I go out, I want to go out with Mavis singing “This Will Be the Last Time.” That’s how I want to die. And it speaks to this profound friendship that she found in this really, you know, unexpected place. You know, The Band is an incredible representation of Americana music, the way she and the Staples Singers connected with them – flexible isn’t the right word but – the Staples were so innovating in terms of their sound and their harmonies were beyond what others were doing. So Levon and Robbie Robertson were psyched about that.

Has Mavis seen the film? What did she think of it?

She has seen the film. I gave her the opportunity to see it, we barely finished it before getting on the plane to Austin in March. I called her manager and said we’re done, I can fly to Chicago and show it to Mavis, before she comes to Austin, where she is going to be watching it with like 1,000 people. So, they gave her the option, and she said no, that’s fine, I’ll see it in Austin.

So, the first time she saw it was in the theater with us.

And, you know, again, I can’t express enough how honored I really was that she trusted us with her story, and trusted us enough to just sit in the theater with us and just watch it. I sat directly behind her, so I could gauge how it was going. What I can say, in a nutshell, for her, the reasons that she appreciates the film is because she wanted to see Pops’ legacy honored in that way. You know, when I asked her about it afterwards, she said that of course it’s incredible to see the footage and our time throughout the years, but it was just so nice to be with Pops. To me, that just felt good. You know, that we had done OK and that she got to spend more time with her dad. That made me feel really good.

OK. I have one more question for you. If you could only listen to one Mavis song for a year, what would it be?

Oh man, that is really tough. That’s like impossible.

Can I have three songs?

Sure

I’m going to do it newest to oldest.

“We Are Going To Make It.” This song plays during the end credits and was very much a mantra in terms of making the film and in terms of life. You know, stuff gets bad, but it’s OK because we’re going to make it. I feel like we spend so much time focused on how bad everything is, and the reason people react so incredibly to Mavis and her music is because it’s an opportunity to say, everything is cool, it’s going to be OK.

Then, if we go back in time, there is an album that came out that’s one of her solo albums for Stax, which did not get what it should have gotten. It’s called “Only for the Lonely” and the single is called “You’re Driving Me to the Arms of the Stranger,” and it’s one of the only times she moved into this romantic, like quintessential R&B, soul stuff. It’s about her coming to terms with her divorce and the heartbreak that a woman feels. It’s just like mind-blowing…the greatest break-up song of all time.

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Then, if we go all the way back to the Staples Singers, probably “Sit Down Servant,” which is, you know, the one Bob Dylan loves and talks about in the film.

Jonathon Sharp