On February 15th, my husband and I drove to Ann Arbor to fulfill a dream of mine: To see Mavis Staples perform live — and at 80 years old, she brought down the house. Within a month, American life would change in ways we couldn’t then imagine, but that night, we got to be in the presence of a genuine legend. I left the theater positively glowing, my heart filled with real joy.
Since then, of course, the library has closed, the state has closed, and like everybody else, I can find myself a little short on joy — so when I discovered that our new film streaming service, Kanopy, offers Mavis!, the 2016 documentary about Staples’s life, I was all over it. Did it matter that I’d already seen it? Not even a little bit!
For 81 minutes, the film draws viewers into Mavis’s world, her history and her present, from the early days, when church audiences would marvel at the little girl with the deep voice, through the Civil Rights era, when the Staples Singers were the first gospel group to support Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., through to the last decade, when Mavis’s career was rejuvenated with the help of Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), who wrote and produced a series of seminal new albums with her — one of which garnered Staples her first Grammy. Director Jessica Edwards spoke at length with pivotal figures in Staples’s life — not least Bob Dylan, who once proposed marriage — and at every turn, there’s music as joyful as it is great. Ultimately, this is also a story about Chicago, the city that nurtured the Staples family and to which Mavis returns at the end of every tour.
“I don’t care to retire,” Mavis told Edwards. “I’ll stop singing when I have nothing left to say. And you know, that ain’t gonna happen.”
In the four years since the release of Mavis!, Staples has continued to produce new work, most notably last year’s We Get By, with producer Ben Harper. If you’re inspired to discover more of Staples’s music after learning about her life, you can stream some of her albums on Hoopla Digital.
Watch Mavis! on Kanopy.