Stephen Colbert was wrapping up his conversation with Mavis Staples at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair Friday night, but had one more question. He wanted to know if she would be a guest on “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” after it launches in September. Yes, she said.
It wasn’t a surprise booking. Staples has appeared on “The Colbert Report,” and sang as the 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” that Colbert hosted with Jon Stewart in Washington, D.C. They had a warm rapport throughout the conversation, which took place after a screening of the documentary “Mavis!” that was part of the Montclair Film Festival. (Colbert, a Montclair resident and a member of the festival’s advisory board, also interviewed Richard Gere last weekend after a screening of Gere’s “Time Out of Mind” at the Wellmont).
The Jessica Edwards-directed “Mavis!” earns its exclamation mark by taking a close look at one of the most underrated figures in 20th century popular music. It isn’t just a matter of what the Staples Singers (the family group for which Mavis almost always sang lead) did, merging the worlds of blues and gospel, contributing to the Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, and crossing over to the pop Top 40 in the 1970s with hits like “I’ll Take You There,” “Let’s Do It Again” and “Respect Yourself.” It’s the breathtaking beauty of Staples’ voice.
In the movie, Bonnie Raitt describes it as “sensual without being salacious.” Bob Dylan says he couldn’t sleep for a week after hearing it on the Staple Singers’ “Sit Down Servant.” Producer Al Bell says, “I respected and loved Aretha, and still do. But she was not Mavis Staples.”
The movie also serves as a tribute to the genius of Staple Singers leader Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who died in 2000. He had a gentle stage presence, but the movie makes it clear how bold he was, embracing blues and then pop in defiance of gospel purists, filling out the band’s sound with his distinctive, tremolo-heavy electric guitar, and shifting the band’s focus to socially conscious material after meeting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time.
“Mavis!” is also, refreshingly, a music documentary that’s free of angst or tales of addiction and excess. The whole Staples family seems grounded, and positive-minded, and wholeheartedly committed to each other. Mavis’ older sister Yvonne still sings backing vocals for her, and they are inseparable.
Colbert, taking the Wellmont stage with Staples after the screening, prostrated himself, as if to say, “I’m not worthy.” Now 75, she seemed thrilled to be there. During the course of the conversation, she treated the crowd to an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” and excerpts from other songs, and told stories about Dylan, and Sam Cooke, and Clara Ward.
“They’ve never seen anybody make be be quiet for this long,” Colbert told her, with the “they” referring to the audience. He was generally happy to take a back seat, though he did sing a bit of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’ ” with Staples, and got in some funny lines, including a deadpan “I’m familiar with that show” after Staples mentioned a performance with Dylan on a David Letterman anniversary special.
The Montclair Film Festival continues through Sunday. For information, visit montclairfilmfest.org.
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