There are many touching moments in Mavis! - Jessica Edwards’ film about Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers – but one standout scene is when Mavis visits old friend Levon Helm. In 1976 they’d appeared in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz when their groups, The Staple Singers and The Band, performed a film stealing version of “The Weight”, and now Mavis, sister Yvonne and their band, turn up at Levon’s home. It’s immediately apparent Levon isn’t well (throat cancer would shortly, in 2012, take his life) but there’s a twinkle in his eye after Mavis gives him a big hug at the front door. Soon we see the musicians sat around, a few acoustic guitars, singing and clapping, following Mavis’s lead. Levon is visibly lifted, rocking in his chair, beaming, his fragile voice given extra strength, looking like the happiest man alive. It’s a beautiful moment and gets to the heart of the unique magic of Mavis Staples – the singer and the woman – who embodies joy, love and positivity. If scientists and medical professionals could clone Mavis or bottle some of her spirit, what a wonderful world this would be.
At 75 years of age Mavis shows no sign of slowly down as the film follows her touring, rehearsing, and reflecting on her career and life, from singing as young girl with her family in the churches, to the folk festivals, to civil rights’ marches, to soul superbowls, to the rock crowd, through lean times and a creative and commercial rebirth. There’s great archive footage (mostly seen before but some I didn’t recognise) are additional interviews with friends, band members, biographers and historians all giving an insight into her indomitable character and that deep voice which confused early listeners who couldn’t believe it came from a tiny girl, expecting it to be from, as Mavis says “a man or a big fat woman”.
Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who worked so well with Mavis on recent records, says he loves her more than any woman apart from his wife. He isn’t the first person I’ve heard say such a thing. Mavis’s magnetic personality easily draws such affection. She’s funny, has an infectious laugh, kind face, boundless enthusiasm, is serious about her music but balances that with a self-depreciating attitude and she’s “everyday people”. She’s also endearingly bashful when it comes to affairs of the heart; that Mavis gets all embarrassed and flappy when admitting to “a smooch” with Bob Dylan is typical.
The relationship with one man though, her father, is central to everything. Fifteen years after Pops passed away Mavis rescued the tapes they made which was planned to be released as a Pops Staples album and gave them to Tweedy to work on. When they listen to Pops’s voice on the finished version, Don't Lose This, it’s her father singing from heaven. As Mavis blubs her eyes out it takes a herculean effort of cinema goers not to follow suit.
Mavis! is an emotional film. Like its subject, it’s sensitive, uplifting and “feel-good”, and should be available on prescription.