Jessica Edwards / 2015 / USA / 80 mins
It breaks no ground stylistically, but Jessica Edwards’ documentary is elevated to heavenly heights by the mere presence of the star at its heart. Mavis Staples, sixty years a soul singer par excellence, still touring, endlessly optimistic, is a pure tonic to watch. ‘I *love* Aretha,’ says her old boss, ‘but Mavis…’ After this documentary, you too might be mentally re-juggling your own musical pecking order.
It starts with Staples’ roots, singing with her family in the churches of post-war Chicago. Gospel music has always been the finest advert for the Almighty. If Staples isn’t channelling something from beyond through her music, then the Pope’s a Protestant. And her personality is quite as formidable as her voice. It would be quite something to see Dawkins try to tell her she’s just a bunch of carbon atoms emitting soundwaves.
Early success as The Staple Singers kick starts a remarkable chain of events which puts the family at the centre of their country’s musical and social upheaval. In the early 60s, father and mentor “Pops” Staples embraces secular music, and plants the family flag firmly in the burgeoning civil rights movement. A meeting with Martin Luther King gives them a message, an encounter with a persistent Bob Dylan a song. ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ has extra resonance for a man with experience of segregation, and they become the first non-folk act to cover Dylan.
The Seventies brings soul superstardom (I’ll Take You There, Respect Yourself), the Eighties an inevitable downturn (despite an under-reported and ultimately canned collaboration with Prince), before she rises again to the elder stateswoman position she rightly holds.
Star-studded talking heads are wheeled out to help carry the tale, another testament to the reverence in which she’s held – Dylan don’t do interviews for just anyone. Chuck D tells of the formative influence the Staples’ 70s albums had, including the “sex” song that Pops found so uncomfortable, and Wilco man Jeff Tweedy is not just an unlikely fan but her producer.
Sadly the man who is such a part of her story, Pops, is no longer around to contribute. His gentle, natural presence (not to mention his natty style) resonates throughout, culminating in a scene where Mavis is played back his final recordings to much tearfulness. Pops could be his own documentary.
There’s definitely space for more of the woman behind the music though. She confesses to a smooch with Bob Dylan, and friend Bonnie Raitt reflects on both her own and Mavis’ childlessness – ‘We were both such Daddy’s girls’ – but there’s not much sense of her channelling the personal through her music, no mention of her mother at all after the 1950s, and not much made of her siblings.
But she’s a woman who, while more than capable of talking, lets her music do most of it. It’s a joy to see her still filling halls, her voice still strong at 75 (and, though not made explicit by the film, interesting to see those halls are now full of mainly white faces, where once they would have been black). Long may she continue.