Mavis! At MIFF

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Director Jessica Edwards talks to Brian Wise about the film of Mavis Staples’ life.

Mavis! is the story of Mavis Staples and her famous family, the Staple Singers. The film chronicles her career from the very early days touring the gospel circuit, her involvement in the civil rights movement, her relationship with her father ‘Pops’ (Roebuck) Staples, her romance with Bob Dylan through to her collaborations with Prince, and more recently, Grammy-winning records with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.

Director Jessica Edwards has been involved in the film industry as a director, producer and publicist. Her short film Seltzer Works screened at SXSW and her subsequent films, Tugs and The Landfill, screened at festivals worldwide. Edwards is also the editor of  Tell Me Something, a book of advice from documentary filmmakers.

I spoke to Edwards while she was recently in Melbourne for the screenings of Mavis! at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

ATN: Congratulations on your inspiring documentary. Of course, it’s Mavis! with an exclamation mark. It doesn’t need a subtitle, does it?

No, no, no, no, no subtitle needed for Mavis. Everything you need to know is in the exclamation point.

When you say the word, the name Mavis, there couldn’t be too many mistakes about who you’re talking about, could there?

No, no, especially in the states, it’s a very, extra very unique name. There’s one and only Mavis.

What inspired you to make the film?

Mavis herself did. I had seen her perform in New York City where I live. I’d certainly been familiar with the Staples Singers, sort of Stax’s era hits, and some more of her new movies that work with Jeff Tweedy. I had gone to see her live and she just blew me away. I mean she just was so inspiring and moved me so much and really moved the audience so much. It was this wonderful mix of people in the show. I went home afterwards and I wanted to learn everything I could about her. Of course, I looked on Netflix for the documentary about her and there wasn’t one. I started learning everything I could and we set out to make one.

Is this your first music documentary?

Yes, this is my first music documentary. It’s also my first feature film. I’ve made a number of short documentaries; but this is my first long form.

Good to find a really powerful woman to make a documentary about.

Yes, she was such an inspiring subject and has such a rich, rich history as well which we sort of touch on in the film. Of course what I was really moved by was what she’s doing now. Now she’s 76. During the course of shooting the film she was, it was a couple of years ago, but you know the fact that she’s still out there and making some of the most vital music of her career. She’s not just an oldies act touring on her hits from the ’70’s. She’s really making the music and working with younger producers and really inspiring new audiences and really crossing over to a new generation.

For me the film was never meant to be a historical document; although of course we do touch on her history. It was really about her now.

How much time did you get to spend with Mavis and her sister Yvonne?

Lots. It took us about two years to make the film and we went and filmed about ten performances and spent a lot of time with her in Chicago where her and Yvonne still live. We did get to spend a lot of great time with her.

What were your impressions after the film, having spent time compared with before the film? Did she meet your expectations? Did you find something you weren’t expecting to find; a sort of person you weren’t expecting to find? How did it compare?

I think that it’s sometimes always hard to meet your heroes or people you have spent a lot of time reading about or trying to get to know and listening to their music; but Mavis on screen and Mavis in person is the same Mavis. She is such a warm person. You walk into a room with her and after five minutes she’s like your grandmother. She’s just so inviting and warm.

Of course the story of Mavis is also the story of the family, the Staple Singers, and the Civil Rights Movement. There are several really touching scenes where Mavis recalls her father and one is she says she misses him, thinks of him every day. The other is in Wilco’s Loft where she plays Jeff Tweedy Pops’ album and she’s crying. I reckon most of the audience were crying at that stage too. He was obviously incredibly important in her life.

I mean she went on the road right out of high school full-time. They had been touring on the weekends when she was still in high school; but she went out with her family full-time when she was about 16, 15 or 16 years old. She spent every day with her Dad. He of course was completely influential in terms of her music abilities and her talents as a vocalist, and she still sort of jokes that she needs Pops’ guitar to know what key she sings in because she’s not a musically trained vocalist. She’s trained by ear.

He was this enormous influence for her in terms of her morals, her music, who she became as a person. As she says in the film, she’s with this person every day for 50 years. When he passed, it was such an incredibly hard thing for her to get over. The fact that she was able to work with Jeff Tweedy and have Spencer Tweedy, Jeff’s son who plays drums a little bit on Pops’ posthumous album, to sort of have that new musical family come on and help her bring Pops back into the world.

It was a really important thing for her. That was his dying wish to have this album “Don’t Lose This” come out. She was really able to see that through with Jeff and Spencer’s help.

Of course it was Pops who got the Staples Singers singing the freedom songs, wasn’t it? It was his … He met Martin Luther King. He became friends with Martin Luther King and he decided well if Martin Luther King can preach it, we can sing it.

Yes, and that carried on. That was Pops’ way of being part of the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60’s. That idea of sort of peace, love, and freedom carried through their music for the rest of their career. It certainly is still in Mavis’ work now. For Mavis, and this is something we focused on, we really wanted to bring forward in the film, for Mavis the Civil Rights Movement didn’t end in 1968. It’s not over now. In her message that Pops really initiated back in the day; she still carries that every time she goes on stage. She still sings freedom songs because, frankly, she knows that the rest of us, especially in the US, we still really need those messages.

Now, one of the people that Pops and Mavis met back in those early days of the Civil Rights Movement was a young fellow called Bob Dylan. Many people who have not read Greg Kot’s biography of Mavis will be incredibly surprised to learn that Bob Dylan wanted to marry Mavis. Talk about an odd couple. Can you talk about that? 

They would have been a great couple – like a power couple – this amazing vocalist and the poet laureate of American music. That would have been something else. It was a very youthful, innocent romance. They were both very, very young and I think they were truly enamoured by each other’s talent. Dylan has said, and says in the film, that the Staples Singers were very influential on him in terms of his early formation of roots music and gospel music.

Actually he was inducted, at the Grammy’s a couple of years ago, he was awarded the MusiCares Award which is this big, big deal in the Grammy world. He got on stage and did a speech, a 30 minute speech, which of course for Dylan that’s amazing, how we never hear him speak that long these days.

He went through a list of a lot of different people who covered his songs – Peter, Paul and Mary, and all these other people – but I think the second people that he mentioned were the Staples Singers, Pervis Staples specifically. The family had done ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, but they also did ‘Masters of War’ and there were a number of other tracks that they released on Epic. They were truly moved by his lyrics. That idea that Pops had that music can bring about peace and change and freedom, those were in Bob’s early, early folk lyrics.

The sort of interplay there of influences was really fascinating to me. It really wasn’t a one-way thing. Pops was definitely influenced and moved by his music the same way that Dylan was influenced by the harmonies.

That early footage you show of him [Dylan] performing just sends chills up your spine. I mean you can see how talented he was and what an incredible talent he was but how hard was it to get an interview with him? 

The interview that you see in the film was from a short film that was released on Public Television in Chicago right after Pops Staples passed in 2000. The local station really wanted to do something for Pops and so Mavis wrote Bob a letter and asked him to participate in the documentary. They sat down and they did the interview and it was a very short, short interview, but when we had been talking to Dylan’s camp for the last couple; we spent about a year and one-half trying to get him.

Dylan is Dylan. He’ll do what he needs to do and they were always very supportive of the film, of our film, and they were always very supportive of us doing it but Dylan, he just wasn’t available. He actually toured quite a bit last year so it just wasn’t something we could do. We knew that we had this other interview that had been rarely seen and actually a portion of the interview, the raw footage, had never been seen. Most of what you see in our film is actually very unique footage of Dylan and the fact that he’s speaking so specifically about the family and their influence was amazing. I was so thrilled to find it. That actually was shot in 2001 or 2002. That’s how we got that.

Mavis was married for a little while, wasn’t she?

Yes.

Bonnie Raitt says something really interesting in the film because her father was a well-known stage performer. She says, “With these strong men in your life, how could anybody else match up to them?’ which I thought was a really interesting thing to say.

I mean you have to also understand that Mavis was coming up in a time when a woman was…… there were certain constraints put on women in those days. I think if the time had been different, if the women’s rights movement had maybe been a little bit further along, that maybe something would be different. Mavis and Bonnie too, Bonnie doesn’t have any children either. You have to make a choice. I feel like we’re so lucky that Mavis did stay out on the road and did put her career first and that the whole world gets the benefit from that; but as a woman in those days, you had to make a sacrifice.

Beneath that very pleasant exterior – and you can’t help but love Mavis, and Yvonne as well who is a huge support – I suspect there’s kind of a steely edge to her, pursuing a career knowing what she wants to do. This is not the sort of person who would maintain a career and allow herself to be pushed around.

Yes, when you’ve been in the music business for 60 years you certainly learn your lessons. I think, you know, especially in the publishing domain Stax was not really the best environment to retain your publishing rights as a writer and we get into that a little bit in the film. When you’ve been doing it as long as she has, she certainly knows the rules and she certainly knows how to take care of herself now. She wouldn’t still be doing it if she didn’t.

That’s a testament to her; but also Pops was a really good businessman. You have to understand the Staples Singers, the family, they’re a working class family. Before Pops started the band, he was working in construction in Chicago, working in the stockyards. Her Mom was a housekeeper at a hotel. These people did not come from means. This was a family business and the business had to support the family.

There are some just great scenes in the film. I think one of my favourites which I’d sort of forgotten about was the one of Mavis singing with The Band and you visit Levon Helm in the film and that is just a great … Levon sings so touchingly as well. That’s just tremendous isn’t it?

Yes, that’s sort of the thing about Mavis is that she just had these super long friendships with people because she was around for such a long time. I mean the Band, their sort of relationship was especially sort of close. The Staples Singers were the first people to cover any of the Band’s songs. They covered ‘The Weight’ in one of their Stax releases and the Band was super tickled by that because they have such an incredibly intricate harmonising technique, you know Robbie and Levon and all the guys, which the Staples Singers directly influenced.

The fact that they then wanted them to then cover ‘The Weight’ was so great and this sort of back story of The Last Waltz which, of course, is the Scorsese documentary about the last Band performance.

The Staples Singers were actually on tour in Europe during the concert itself when everybody comes, Neil Young and everybody comes and actually performs on stage in front of a live audience. The Staples Singers didn’t go there because they were on tour, but The Band wanted them in the film so badly that Scorsese set up a studio and everybody came together afterwards, after the actual initial concert had been shot so that they could be included in the film.

Now Jessica I know you can’t put everything in the film because it would taken three hours.

Right.

You can’t put everything in, but one thing did surprise me. The album that Mavis made with Ry Cooder wasn’t mentioned. 

Sure. I think one of the biggest challenges in terms of making the film was the fact that there was just too much. My goal and interest in the film was really where’s the emotional thread here? If you just start getting listy about it, it ends up being a Wikipedia entry. For many people who may know, if you know Mavis, and you know the Staples Singers’ career, you’re going to find so many things that are missing. For people who might not be as familiar, the film can act as sort of a launch into this amazing discovery of hundreds of hours of new music and this amazing history.

At the end of the day we just had to let the film dictate where it needed to go. While that Ry Cooder album is so amazing, it just ended up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately. There’s a lot of other things like, Mahalia Jackson and Mavis had a really special relationship. I really wanted to include that in the film but again it’s going to be a DVD extra because you really have to pay attention to what the film wants to be and where that trajectory, narrative trajectory, was going.


What were the biggest challenges in making the film?

It was really just not being able to include everything. It really is. There is of course all kinds of challenges when you’re making a music film in terms of making sure you’re getting rights for everything and all this sort of backroom dealing nitty gritty stuff that’s super boring and generally annoying.

The best thing that I can say is that Mavis has so much good will and so any time we would approach people about participating in this film, or giving us photographs, or any kind of archive material, there’s just so much love for her.

She is just this force of good and this wonderful light that people just bent over backwards to help us in any way we can; from Dylan all the way on down. I never anticipated such wonderful participation.

Interestingly enough, she has moved on to another producer. She’s gone from Jeff Tweedy to another producer composer who’s working with her now for her latest EP that she has put out, which says she’s always looking to move forward.

Definitely, I mean Son Little is the name of the young man she worked with on the EP that came out a couple of months ago and I encourage everybody to pick it up. It’s four songs, two that Aaron wrote and then two other older, sort of vintage Staples tracks. That’s the thing, that’s really this amazing thing about this woman.

I also think that in a culture that really puts up youthfulness and young artists that’s sort of the ideal and here’s this woman 76 years old going out of her comfort zone in a way that is creating this incredible new work – You’re Good Fortune, which is the name of that EP, there’s such an experiment in that.

To be her age and just, it’s almost in a way when she first did ‘Have A Little Faith’, and started working with Ry Cooder and then, of course, Tweedy and all the rest of it, she almost came into her own.

She had tried to have a solo career at other points in her life. Of course, her work with Prince and some other stuff she did with Stax but it was at 65 she’s going out and taking these risks and making this incredible work. It revitalised her whole life, not even her career. She became this amazing new artist in her own right and that to me is super commendable. It would have been very easy for her to just sit down and retire and she didn’t. 

She doesn’t know anything else. We joke that her managers will send her out on the road and she will tour relentlessly which she still does. She was in Australia a couple of months ago on a countrywide tour. She’ll go home and she’ll have a rest for a week and then she calls up her managers and she’s like, “Where am I going next?” She can’t sit still. When you’ve been doing it since you were 15, you don’t know anything else.

I suppose working with Jeff Tweedy and Son Little enables her to reach a younger audience and I suppose having Jeff Tweedy in the film helps that as well because you’ve got Wilco fans who then want to go find out who this Mavis Staples is that Jeff Tweedy is working with. 

Absolutely. I mean Wilco fans now, because they’ve done three records they’ve done together now including the Pops Staples one, the Wilco fans certainly know about her and who she is. You’ve been to her shows. You go into the audience, there’s older African-Americans and there’s young, white hipster kids with beards, little families. The first time that I saw her perform I went with my family and my two year old.

Because the family performed music from so many different genres that’s kind of the best thing about her. You can’t pigeon-hole her into this. People say oh, she’s a gospel singer. Yes, of course, she sang gospel 50 years ago or whatever, and of course that still influences who she is, but she’s not a gospel singer. She might be trained in the gospel way, but she just goes through so many different kind of genres that she appeals to so many different people.

I think that’s finally all coming together. That’s really when you go and see her live which I encourage everybody to do because it’s obviously such an amazing experience. You see that in the audience.

Well thank you very much for talking to me and congratulations once again on the documentary. I found it really inspiring.

Thank you so much and thank you for the nice words about the film. It’s so nice and makes me feel so good that people who are very familiar with her and know Greg Kot’s book and all the rest of it, that you guys still enjoy it too. It’s always important about that.

Mavis! – Documentary Trailer from Film First on Vimeo.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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