Throughout the 80-minute film, which coincides with the February 19 release of Staples’ new Livin’ On a High Note, we see why her famous family, The Staple Singers, once nicknamed her “Bubbles” for her sunny, buoyant disposition.
Like Mavis’ recent, Jeff Tweedy-produced work, the film balances a celebration of life with an acknowledgement of how transitory our existence is
Filmed over the course of several years, it shows Mavis visiting with Jeff Tweedy, the Wilco bandleader who has also served as her producer. She reunites with Levon Helm decades after the two sang “The Weight” together in the 1976 film of The Band’s final concert that resulted in the documentary, The Last Waltz. Helm ruefully discusses a recent chemotherapy treatment — he passed away in 2012 — and then he and Mavis duet on an uplifting rendition of “This May Be the Last Time,” a traditional gospel number The Staple Singers performed in 1958, and which the Rolling Stones subsequently made famous in 1965 as “The Last Time.”
Much like Mavis’ recent, Tweedy-produced work, the film balances a celebration of life with an acknowledgement of how transitory our existence is.
Most importantly, Mavis! establishes this Chicago singer as a major American artist. We see how the then-teenage singer’s deep and sonorous voice helped turn The Staple Singers’ 1961 song “Uncloudy Day” into moving a million copies, and how a decade later, the group crossed over to the R&B charts with “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again.” (The latter is a lushly orchestrated Curtis Mayfield production about summertime and afternoon delights; family patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples almost nixed the Billboard No. 1 hit due to its overtly sexual lyrics.)
In the film, blues guitarist and singer Bonnie Raitt explains the uncommon power of her friend’s voice.
“There was something so sensual about it without being salacious,” she says. “That’s the thing that moved me so much. Because you normally think that gritty roadhouse kind of weathered voice is associated with sexuality or the blues.”
One of the most heartbreaking moments in Mavis! is when Tweedy plays Pops Staples’ ‘Friendship’ and then reaches over to give a consoling hug to Mavis, who has burst into tears.
Instead, Mavis sings rough gospel, and she revels in connecting secular, non-religious audiences with the redemptive and, yes, sensual power of spirituality.
Livin’ on a High Note, which comes out a year after Mavis! premiered at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, continues a remarkable second-act for Mavis.
As the Staple Singers’ lead singer, she only released a handful of poorly promoted solo albums, including some weird-yet-evocative early ‘90s collaborations with Prince. There were highlights: the documentary points out her 1970 cover of Bacharach & David’s “A House is Not a Home,” while fans of Sidney Poitier and pre-scandal Bill Cosby ‘70s comedy-action films will fondly call the delicious funk groove that Mayfield and Staples produced for A Piece of the Action’s soundtrack.
“Pops” Staples, whom longtime Chicago journalist Greg Kot calls “a visionary artist who doesn’t get enough credit” for blending genres such as folk, blues, gospel and soul, passed away in 2000, effectively marking the end of The Staple Singles. (Yvonne Staples continues to tour with Mavis; Cleotha Staples died in 2013, and Pervis Staples left the group in the late ‘60s.)
In 2004, Mavis issued an indie album, Have a Little Faith that helped her secure new management and a deal with Anti Records. She has since recorded a string of impressive albums, including 2010’s Grammy-winning One True Vine. (She also won a 2016 Grammy for her 2015 EPYour Good Fortune.)
Raitt sympathetically calls Mavis a “daddy’s girl,” and one of the most heartbreaking moments in the documentary is when Tweedy plays “Friendship” from Pops Staples’ 2015 posthumous album Don’t Lose This, and then reaches over to give a consoling hug to Mavis, who has burst into tears.
Livin’ on a High Note finds the 76-year-old Mavis still finding sunshine and warmth amid life’s ordinary pain.
Modern soul and indie-rock royalty penned the album’s songs. Merrill “Tune-Yards” Garbus, composed the lively percussive clicks and get-off-your-duff message of “Action,” and Aloe Blacc, who penned the sunny-side-up optimism of “Tomorrow (Is another day).”
But those starry contributions are just subtext to Mavis’ authoritative performance. She may no longer be able to produce the light melismatic qualities of her musical youth, yet now she radiates grandmotherly warmth. She gingerly, but pointedly, teaches us to persevere and to embrace the light.
Then there are the “freedom songs,” which have been part of her repertoire ever since her family performed ‘60s civil rights songs such as “Why (Am I Treated So Bad).”
On Livin’ on a High Note, she sings “MLK Song,” a composition M. Ward 9who also produced the album) written from the perspective of the late Dr. Martin Luther King. That song’s epiphany is met by a similar moment during Mavis!
As this septuagenarian heroine performs in concert, she lifts the audience into a musical fervor, and shouts, “I’m determined to go all the way until Dr. King’s dream has been realized!” Mavis’ conviction matches that of Dr. King, albeit on a different stage, but it still represents a dream the whole of humanity can get behind.