While at SXSW earlier this month, Larry Heath sat down with Jessica Edwards, the director and producer of Mavis! – a new documentary about the legendary Mavis Staples, who just so happens to be touring Australia as we publish this piece. The pair talk about the experiences of making this film, the icon herself and much more…
Larry: I guess we’ll start from the beginning. When did you start working on this project?
JE: It’s been about two years. I had seen Mavis perform live a couple of years ago and she had moved me so much and sort of given me this like energy and hope and the performance itself was just so moving. She’s 75 years old you know, I mean back then she was a couple of years younger. So I had known a little bit about her family story, and so when I got home that nigh I started looking for more information. I wanted to discover whatever I could. I went looking for a documentary about her, and I didn’t find one. I started thinking about making one and we were able to get in touch with the manager and figure it out. So that’s sort of how it started.
And what did it take to convince Mavis that this was the time to do it?
Well I think that you know, you should ask Mavis that question (laughs). But, for us, she turned 75 this year, and it made sense to sort of record that, to create a document of that, and her life. And this woman has such an incredible legacy, and that was something which we were really interested in exploring. So inevitably, I think it was just the right time for her.
And it’s probably by pure coincidence that its ended up leading into the release of Pops’ record as well.
Right. Well it’s documentary, so you get surprises, and you get grateful for the surprises and so even before we had know about the new Pops record Don’t Lose This… Pops is obviously such a huge part of Mavis’ music and Mavis’ life, and their relationship is so special that as we filmed more and researched more that that connection that they had, you know, Pops just became a really important character in the film. And then when the record came up and we were able to incorporate that into the film it was sort of a perfect storm. You just want to follow your story and that’s inevitably what it was.
You’ve ended up at the end of the film, getting one of the most beautiful scenes of the film, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when she is sitting there listening to ‘Friendship’ with Jeff Tweedy. What an incredible scene.
It was quite something. And obviously for me the connection that Jeff (Tweedy) and her have together, and that their families have, was something that I found really special. You know, Mavis is, Pops is gone, and her older sister Cleotha passed away a couple of years ago, but she is still out there, she’s still bringing it. And I think that in Jeff, not only has she found this amazing collaborator, but she’s really found a family. Spencer (Jeff’s son) is like her grandson, and that’s something that is really special. So she is still making music with her family and I think that means a lot to her.
Has Jeff been a catalyst which has kept her recording?
No, I wouldn’t agree. She did it before he came along. She made a record called Have A Little Faith in 2002, and she financed it herself and got it out there. Jeff didn’t come in to the picture until many years later, probably like 4 or 5 years later. So you know, she was out there anyway, and that’s not to discount Jeff and her collaboration, and how important they have been to each other in their creative collaboration but you know, Mavis, she started it on her own. She was fierce about it and wanted it to happen. Jeff came in after she had recorded a couple of albums. She was out there recording as a solo artist and then her and Jeff started recording together. So you know not to discount Jeff’s importance in her contemporary solo career but she started that on her own.
I think its more that its given her the confidence to get it out there in a much more, in a bigger way, and its probably led to things like this happening.
Well she won a Grammy for the album that they worked on together You Are Not Alone, which was the first Grammy she has ever won. And she’s you know been performing for 60 years so yes, I will definitely give you that. But you know I think that the most wonderful and inspirational part about Mavis is really the fact that she believed in herself when she could have just retired. And she didn’t.
And as the film shows, you couldn’t imagine her retiring…
Exactly, exactly. I hope that she never does retire, because I want to listen to her forever.
Seeing her live, there is no experience like it. That, as you said, is the catalyst for you making the film. Tell me a little about your history as a filmmaker, what were you doing up to that point, I mean it’s incredible that this is your feature film debut because it’s just such a beautifully put together piece.
Thank you. That’s very kind and I’m very grateful to hear that. I have made three other short films, three other documentaries, and I started making films just because I was interested in making them. But I had been working as a film publicist before, so I had been working with film and other filmmakers for my whole life. I was never really sure what I wanted my feature to be, but I knew it had to be something that I loved enough to live with for years, and spend all my time and all my money to really get it made.
So yeah, I always try and take the long view of stuff, even when it is kind of more difficult, because when you make films, I really hope that this will be the first of many because I really love making them. And shorts or long ones, or you know, internet ones or anything, I really think it’s just about the work, finding the subjects that you love.
Looking at the chronology of it, the footage with the late Levon Helm, were you in the room for that?
No, I wasn’t. Unfortunately Levon passed in 2012 and we were able to, from his estate, to get unreleased footage from a rehearsal and performance that Mavis and Yvonne had gone up to, the Midnight Ramble in Woodstock. It was sort of the last time that her and Levon had seen each other and I had known that they had gone up to the performance so we had made enquiries but I wasn’t sure what we would get.
But what we did get, it’s actually one of my favourite parts in the film and their relationship was so close, such a unique collaboration and The Band were such big fans of The Staples Singers so it felt like full circle because they had played together in The Weight, in The Last Waltz 35 or 45 years ago. To sort of see them together in 2011 was really something. And Levon, I’ve always really been a fan of The Band since I was a teenager, so that’s really one of my favourite moments.
And his documentary as well, it felt like that footage came from that period where people were following him around for that documentary which was thankfully released before he passed, or at least in the festival circuit before he passed. It was, what an incredible story for him as well. Umm, the hardest part of putting a film like this together?
I mean the hardest part is really telling, I mean we were never going to fit everything in. her story is too long, there’s just too much. It’s such an amazing life well lived. So the challenge was always about really you know, pick and choose, what are we going to leave for other people to discover for themselves. And you know, trying to stay true to what we started with, which is that Mavis is amazing right now. I mean she has been amazing her whole life but this was never a historical film for us, it was always about right now. So that’s what we tried to stick to.
That’s actually one of the things I was going to bring up, that this doesn’t feel like a historical film. You’re not interviewing Obama, and everyone and his dog, about Mavis. You let Mavis tell the story in her own words. And you know, people like Bonnie Raitt and that come in briefly, but you see a lot of these films and it’s like they’re told in all these other people’s words almost to the point where it may as well be a VH1 documentary… it was a film as much about now as it was about the past, how she views herself over the past 60 years of performing.
Yeah, I’m glad you saw that too.
So what was the best thing about making this film?
I mean Mavis obviously. Because I think you know, we spend so much time in our lives being bogged down by stuff, and she just brings so much light. Being able to spend time with her and having her trust to tell her story is certainly the highlight. Not only of the film, but also of my life. And that’s it. Just Mavis.
Did you find that it was ever difficult to get that trust and was it uncomfortable at the beginning or did it all just feel right?
No, once she agreed to do it we were on board.
That’s fantastic. You speak to some directors and at the beginning its all trials and tribulations but she has never seemed like that sort of person. So what are plans for the film beyond this?
Looking for a distributor, hopefully we will have it out in the next year or so. Just follow us around on the Internet and you’ll find out when we do.
Hopefully you can make it to the Sydney Film Festival, there’s a big music component.
Yes, we’ve been talking to them.
Well hopefully we get to see you down there. It’s definitely one of the best things about making a film like this, the journey you get to take.
Mavis! premiered at SXSW earlier this month.