Mavis! director on what it took to make the first doc about the legend

Jessica Edwards talks publicity, Pops and Prince

Jessica Edwards’s Mavis!, chronicling the life of gospel/blues/soul singer Mavis Staples, is a joyous tribute to the performer’s resilience and positivity. NOW talked to Edwards about how she made her first feature, why the singer inspired her and how she got Prince involved in the project. Mavis! opens Friday (November 13). For venues and times, see Listings.

How surprised were you that no one had made a documentary about Mavis Staples?

I was shocked. So I feel lucky that she trusted us to tell her story. Basically, we just called her. With docs, it’s like being a publicist – you call till you’re really annoying. But her management was already interested in pursuing something. Others had tried, but we came at the right time.

Speaking of publicists, you were one yourself.

I made documentary shorts, which is a great training ground. Just completing something is extremely motivating. But then I did some film publicity. I worked with Ang Lee, Sofia Coppola and David Cronenberg. The challenge of coming to a full feature is shutting that publicist side of my brain off, not worrying about the marketing, not paying attention to what film fest we’re going to go to and the distribution and all that inside-baseball stuff.

I really appreciated all the info the movie offers about Mavis’s dad, Pops.

In fact, we joked that the movie should just be called Pops! The reason Mavis is who she is now and is still out there at 75 with her integrity and not just singing the hits is because of what Pops instilled in her – that you sing from the heart and send a message. She wasn’t able to go out on her own until Pops passed.

How did you score that exceptional footage with Levon Helm?

Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter, performed with Mavis at one of the concerts we filmed. I had always wanted to include scenes from The Last Waltz, because that’s when Mavis started connecting with a younger audience, and I was looking for behind-the-scenes footage. Then I met Amy, and she told me, “We have all this stuff of Levon and Mavis in an archive: a performance and two days of rehearsals of Mavis and Levon playing together.” 

And Prince?

Prince is a huge fan of Mavis’s. When you’re doing something on Mavis, there’s so much goodwill, and people couldn’t believe a film hadn’t been made about her yet, so we were able to get a lot of great permissions. 

Don’t miss our review of Mavis! here.


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