Whatever you believe in that happens to be bigger yourself, that happens to be something you can’t explain, that thing that I just call God, because even though I am about as non-secular as you can get, I am also lazy and God is easy. That that thing, God, shows up in the most unlikeliest of places. Like a Rolling Stone article about a recently released live track from 2014 where the Arcade Fire and Mavis Staples cover a Talking Heads song. The song, which may be proof of a higher power in and of itself, opened a whole can of worms for me. Mainly, the undeniable miracle that is Mavis Staples.
The same article linked to the above disco gospel ballad by Arcade Fire and Staples released in January as a protest song which benefited the ACLU. As I listened to the lo-fi electro beat and the lyrics, which talk clearly about giving power and then taking it away I thought, “Of course, Mavis Staples would be here for us now.”After all, here’s a woman, who alongside her family, provided the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement.Angry, teary eyed and yet somehow relieved, the song knocked me out. Not one to slow down, Mama Mavis was also just featured on a brand new Gorillaz track. The song is another one with a powerful message made even more so when delivered by that incredible voice.
I have to be honest. Hearing these two songs back-to-back was incredibly emotional. Not only was I reminded of the fucked up times we live in but I was comforted by knowing that if there’s any hope Mavis will be around to help carry us through all of it. Raw, powerful and honest both songs pack a punch and one I didn’t expect just hanging out drinking coffee at my kitchen table. Speaking of things divine, the timing of my musical Mavis binge was certainly other worldly. I was planning on watching the documentary on her life Mavis! directed by Jessica Edwards, currently airing on HBONow, later that afternoon.
The documentary, which was filmed in 2014 and made the rounds at festivals the following year before winding up on HBO, couldn’t be any more timely. While I am definitely not that annoying person who tells people they will or won’t feel a certain emotion when watching a film, I will say it wouldn’t be the worst idea ever to have a box of tissues nearby when viewing Mavis! Nearly 20 days of personal blogging has left me a emotional mess so my weepiness at the film could be considered suspicious however you’d have to be a Nazi Cyborg to not be moved by Mavis Staples and her incredible message.
For starters, the film profiles Mavis and Staples Singers incredible rise to fame as gospel singers who wound up singing songs of hope and message for the Civil Rights movement. The band’s personal connection with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is incredibly powerful. Pops Staples was inspired by King’s message and wanted to make music that did the same thing. Coming from Chicago, Mavis and her clan were shocked while touring the South to see the hideous racism and injustice happening to black people. And as Mavis herself notes, the struggle is sadly alive and well today and she’s vowed to keep singing about until, “Dr. King’s dream comes true.”
Staples’ list of collaborators and famous fans reads like a who’s who of rock and roll history. Bonnie Raitt, Curtis Mayfield and recent collaborator Jeff Tweedy are all mentioned or interviewed in the film but the dishiest celebrity dirt comes from Bob Dylan. Dylan, a huge fan of the group, apparently at one point asked Staples to marry him! She reaches ninja-levels of cuteness when talking about their flirtation which “may have included some kissing.”
Yet the tissues came in handy when the film showed footage of Staples working with Prince. The two made a record together that never saw the light of day, sadly, due to his all out war with Warner Brothers Records. As Staples describes Princes genius, we are treated to shots of the pair working in the studio together. While sobbing, I was reminded that nearly a year later, I’m still fucked up about that one.
Near the end of the film, Staples and Tweedy listen to a newly restored recording of a song by her father from an album he never got to complete before he died. By this time, I was just a full-fledged tear waterfall and embraced my crying fest. It’s a beautiful moment and one Staples herself is touched by too. And of course she is because like all shining divine beings, she’s also incredibly truthful and human.
And that’s the thing about her voice. Far from the smooth voice of an angel, Mavis gets a little rough and raspy. At times, she looks as if she’s exorcising some demons in the clips of live performances featured in the film. Mentioned more than once in the film, is her desire to keep telling the truth and to keep spreading a message and I’m convinced that’s what gives her voice that edge.
That’s why I’m pretty sure whatever my non-secular unicorn glitter god is it probably sounds like Mavis Staples. Raw, real, not always pretty but comforting to the depths of your soul. Yeah If God sounds like that than hallelujah. Plus with a career pushing past the six decade point, Staples certainly seems eternal. At the end of the film, the artist herself even hints at her own angelic future. “If you don’t see me singing here, look for me in heaven,” she says. “I’ll be walking those streets of gold and singing around God’s throne.”