City Paper at SXSW: The music doc 'Mavis!' lets the powerful performances do the talking

Like the Maryland Film Festival, the South by Southwest Film Festival follows each screening by a discussion with the movie's creative team. After SXSW presented the world premiere of "Mavis!" on Sunday, director Jessica Edwards was asked about the use of talking heads in her wonderful picture about Mavis Staples.

She could have gotten plenty of celebrities to go on camera and deliver testimonials about how terrific Staples is, she said, and that's what most music documentaries do. But she didn't want to go that route, because she was confident that her own performance footage made that abundantly clear. So she limited the talking heads to people who had collaborated with Staples in one way or another and could move the narrative along with their stories.

Those talking heads included Staples' sister Yvonne, her biographer Greg Kot, her former label exec Al Bell, her recent producer Jeff Tweedy, her longtime friend Bonnie Raitt, and her ex-boyfriend Bob Dylan. Unlike most talking heads, these folks used more verbs than adjectives, emphasizing what she did over what she was like. This made "Mavis!" more of a true story and less of an homage.

The result was one of the most satisfying music documentaries in the current flood of such projects. The performance footage, ranging from 1950s black-and-white TV clips through 1972 "Wattstax" movie excerpts to songs from the 2014 Newport Folk Festival, was consistently thrilling. Edwards joked afterward that you could trace Staples' history by her hair styles: wavy perm to halo-shaped afro to copper-colored wig.

In every clip, the extraordinary power of Staples' alto, from its rumbling bottom to its piercing top, was delivered with an emotional wallop. In one sequence, country star Marty Stuart explained on camera how he discovered the Staple Singers while watching TV one night as Mavis sang 'The Weight' with the Band in Martin Scorsese's documentary, "The Last Waltz." That segues into her visiting the Band's Levon Helm at his Woodstock studio many years later as the drummer suffered the last stages of cancer. He sat in a rocking chair, grinning as she sat in a nearby chair and sang him an old hymn.

A few scenes later, after Levon and Pop Staples have both died, Mavis reprised 'The Weight,' and you could hear the heaviness of those deaths pressing upon her as she belted out, "Take a load off, Annie, and, and, and/ put the load right on me." She sang the line with such strength, as if she could bear any burden, that the audience on the screen started cheering—and the audience at the SXSW screening did the same.

But "Mavis!" did more than showcase the power of her singing; it also demonstrated where that strength came from. Edwards didn't just tell us that the Staples family was tight-knit; she showed us. To hear Pop talk about his daughters, to hear Mavis and Yvonne talk about their parents, to watch them travel and perform together over the decades was to understand how the family bonds enabled the group to defy the jaded cynicism of so many aging performers.

Kot and gospel historian Anthony Heilbut were especially good about explaining the importance of Pop's innovations on the guitar: how he took the Delta blues innovations of his neighbors on Mississippi's Dockery Plantation, wed them to gospel songs, and then distilled it all to a skeletal minimalism. The film was finished so recently that it was able to explain how Pop Staples' long-lost solo album, "Don't Lose This," was finally released in 2015. And a spellbinding recording it is.

When Mavis received her first Grammy Award in 2011, in a scene included in the movie, she looked up overhead and said, "It's all because of you, Pop, that I am here. You built the foundation, and I'm still working on the building."

In the post-film interview, she told another story about her father and Bonnie Raitt. "I used to be so jealous of Bonnie," she said, "because Pop was crazy about her. He would do sessions with her, and I was not invited. When she was around, I didn't exist. I started asking myself, 'How can I be like Bonnie? Should I get some red hair? Should I learn the guitar?' But then I met Bonnie's father [Broadway star John Raitt] and he was crazy about me like Pop was about her. So I got her back." And she gave a hearty, chortling laugh.

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