150301_mavis_poster_SS_working_27x40_final.inddFor gospel and R&B singer Mavis Staples, her music was more than just her profession — it became an important contribution to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. From the freedom songs that marked the era along with hits like “I’ll Take You There” in the ’70s, to collaborations with Prince and her recent albums with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Mavis Staples has stayed true to her roots, kept her family close, and inspired millions along the way. Featuring powerful live performances, rare archival footage, and conversations with friends and contemporaries including Bob Dylan, Prince, Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D, Julian Bond, Sharon Jones, Levon Helm, and her latest devoted collaborator, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Jessica Edwards’ new documentary Mavis! charts Staples’ career and influences on music and our culture. At the age of 75, Mavis is making the most vital music of her career, winning Grammy awards and reaching a new generation of fans. Her message of love and equality is needed now more than ever.

I have a personal connection to Mavis Staples since my brother-in-law, Jeff Tweedy, produced two of her recent albums, You Are Not Alone and One True Vine and remastered the previously unreleased final album featuring Mavis’s beloved father, Pops Staples, Don’t Lose This. Mavis has become an honorary grandmother to my nephews, Spencer and Sammy Tweedy, and close to my sister, Susan Miller Tweedy. Spencer appears in the documentary and plays the drums on Mavis’s recent CDs. Mavis! premieres tonight, February 29th, on HBO. I talked to Jessica Edwards about how the film came to be.

Danny Miller: I’m so grateful that this film exists for posterity since the contributions of Mavis and her family are so huge. To be honest, I was shocked to discover that there weren’t any films made about them before this.

jessica-mavisJessica Edwards: I know! That’s why I was so motivated to do this film. The TV show Chicago Stories did a short piece about the family shortly after Pops Staples died in 2000 but that’s really it.

It’s so great that Mavis gets to basically tell her own story in your film. 

Yes — my main role was to just get out of Mavis’s way. I really wanted the film to be in her voice. When we started, I thought there would be a lot more biographical details but at some point you realize you just can’t fit everything in so I had to keep reminding myself that we were focusing more on who she is today. I think that if you try to cram every biographical thing into a film you end up with a Wikipedia entry which no one wants. Greg Kot’s great book, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway, came out as we were making the film and covers a lot of ground so I just embraced the fact that this film would have its own narrative arc and not try to “cover” everything. You know Mavis so you know what a vivacious, vital, incredible 75-year-old woman she is. There’s just no one like her!

Did you approach her out of the blue with the idea of making this film?

Pretty much. I had seen her perform several times after One True Vine was released and that’s when I first realized there hadn’t been a film made about her. At first Mavis didn’t want to do it, she’s one of the most humble people in the world, but once we started talking about how the movie would focus not just on her but on the legacy of Pops and the Staple Singers and how their music was positioned within the greater music scene, she got very excited about it.

The interviews in the film are fantastic, including the ones with people who we hardly ever see that way on camera. 

Bob Dylan agreed to sit down and be interviewed for that shorter piece I mentioned, even though he never does stuff like that, because Mavis wrote him a letter and asked him to do it. He was super supportive of this film and the best thing was that he gave us permission to use a lot more of the footage from that interview that has never been seen before. Mavis’s life seems to be filled with people like Bob Dylan and Prince who don’t like to be interviewed on camera. Both of them were super supportive — we lucked out because there’s just so much good will towards Mavis Staples.

Did you have a certain structure for the film in mind when you started?

We decided to film her over the course of her 75th year. We filmed her on the road and back in Chicago and, of course, spent a lot of time in the Wilco Loft with Mavis, Jeff, and Spencer.


Needless to say, I loved seeing Spencer in the film. I know he really thinks of Mavis as a family member.

I really feel there are parallels between Mavis and your nephew. I know some people who’ve gone on tour with Spencer when Tweedy (his band with father, Jeff Tweedy) was on the road and they all had the impression that, like Mavis, Spencer was so grounded and humble because he had such a strong upbringing. He’s out there doing what he loves not for fame and fortune but because it’s really important to him. Mavis came up the same way. It was never about the trappings of fame for the Staples family. They had that strong moral compass which is why Mavis seems like such a regular person to this day, despite all her success.

Were you nervous when you showed Mavis the film for the first time?

Oh God, I offered to show it to her before our world premiere in Austin but she decided she just wanted to watch it that night along with everyone else. I was terrified, but she was amazing! I sat right behind her and she said she had so many emotions flooding through her that night. One of my favorite moments watching her watch the movie was when Bob Dylan came on the screen for the first time and is talking about what an influence the family had on him. Mavis just started giggling like she was 15. It was so cute, you could see it was like the memories anyone might have of a long-lost love.

I love the new Pops Staples album and that moment when Mavis is in the Wilco loft and hears that part of the song “Friendship” that Jeff left on the CD where Pops and Mavis are talking to each other after the song ends. That moment always reduces me to tears.

“Sounds good, Mavis!” “Well let me hear it, Daddy.” I was sitting under the sound board at the loft when we filmed Mavis hearing that for the first time and I was just bawling my eyes out watching that happen. I was like, “This is probably very unprofessional as far as filmmaking goes but I can’t help it!” You can see that clip on our website. Jeff is so sweet with her, they are a wonderful team. I love how they collaborated on that project — it’s such a beautiful album.


One of the great things about a documentary like this, especially having it play on HBO, is that new audiences will be turned on to her music.

That’s my biggest hope. We’ve had a great response to the film so far from a wide range of people. I think one of the many cool things about her and Jeff’s collaboration is that Jeff helped to bring this other audience to her. Mavis is so unique in that she’s played so many different kinds of music so there are all these different access points for people. She’s one of the most amazing artists we have — she and her family have spanned all genres of music while never straying from their message and that kernel that came from when Pops first heard Dr. King speak — the idea that equality and freedom and love and community are at the forefront of everything. They sang love songs, too, of course, but they always came back to those tenets of who they were as artists and as human beings. Mavis still does that now. Just listen to her new album, Livin’ on a High Note, all that stuff is still there.

Mavis! premieres tonight, February 29, on HBO and can be seen on demand.