Through archival footage and recordings, interviews with friends and family, and recent behind-the-scenes video of the singer both onstage and off, Mavis! chronicles the 60-plus-year odyssey of Mavis Staples, a native of Chicago who got her start in music singing with her siblings — two sisters, Cleotha and Yvonne, and a brother, Pervis — along with their father, “Pops,” at the local church. Highlighted by Mavis’ raw and powerful lead vocals, Pops’ smooth baritone and tremolo-guitar accompaniment, and sublime four-part harmonies, the group gained momentum in local gospel-music circles; by the mid-‘50s they’d been signed by Vee-Jay Records, recording the first gospel song to sell a million copies while forging a novel, visionary sound that fused two musical genres: blues and gospel.
As the civil-rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, the Staple Singers became a mainstay at rallies led by Dr. Martin Luther King, whose favorite song was the group’s “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad).” The group also attracted the attention of rising musicians like Bob Dylan, who bonded with the group at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and was admittedly enamored of its young lead singer. Pops particularly empathized with the message of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (“How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man?”), and decided to record the song with the Staple Singers. It was the first time that a group covered a Dylan song.
Signed by Al Bell at Stax Records, who wanted to “lift them higher,” the group expanded their repertoire to include secular music, adding backup musicians from the formidable Stax stable to fill out their soul sound. The result was the 1972 album Be Attitude: Respect Yourself, which spawned the hit singles “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” and catapulted the Staples into music superstardom. Other hits followed, including “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me” and “Let’s Do It Again,” the latter of which was written by soul legend Curtis Mayfield. Mavis also recorded several successful solo albums, encouraged by Bell and with the help of guitarist/producer Steve Cropper.
Briefly married in 1964, Mavis always wanted children, but the timing never seemed right – a fate she shares with Bonnie Raitt, a friend and fellow singer who talks about being the daughter, like Mavis, of a high-profile musical father. Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Mavis continued singing with her family, putting her solo career on hold – until Prince called in 1986, signing her and recording the LP The Voice, which “got lost” because of a fallout between Prince and his record company, Warner Bros. In the late ‘90s, with Pops’ health failing, Mavis and her siblings vowed to make an LP that would be “Pops’ album” — one that was recorded but never released, as Pops died in December 2000, a few days before his 89th birthday. The void in Mavis’ life was profound, but she was rejuvenated after meeting fan and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who produced two recent Mavis albums, You Are Not Alone and One True Vine. Tweedy was also instrumental in finishing Pops’ last album, Don’t Lose This, which was released in 2015.
Currently backed by a tight-knit group that often includes Yvonne (her constant companion), Mavis continues to perform, with no intention of retiring. “I’m just doing what I always do,” she says. “Bring love and music to the people.”
The director for Mavis! is, Jessica Edwards; executive producer, Gary Hustwit; producer, Rachel Mills; cinematographer, Keith Walker; editor, Amy Foote; associate editor, Maya Tippett. For HBO: Senior producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.