Mavis! Review


Renowned singer Mavis Staple is a prominent figure in the gospel/soul music scene, who found fame between the 50s and 70s with her family band The Staple Sisters. But Mavis is much more than a simple musical cog. She’s a super-star by herself, flaunting a delightfully humble demeanour, a hunger for life and the impeccable soul for a big screen exposé. Mavis! (the documentary) follows the singer on tour with her band. Alongside the mingling film-crew, the band reminisce, thumb through faded photographs and record a new album with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, while relaying their vibrant histories with tears, shining smiles and curious glints in their eyes. Director/ Producer Jessica Edwards’ lightweight uncovering glides then soars on the winning chi of its star, while Mavis maintains a “show must go on” mantra, exuding a fiery optimism well into her winter years and during a time when the music industry is in a budding state of flux.

The finer aspects of her story surface gracefully and Mavis never lets negativity or irrelevant details get in the way of a yarn, which is thankfully an ethos the film-makers employ. Mavis! has a leisurely flow that makes it both tranquil and never encumbered with extraneous facts. While some documentaries mechanically relay exhaustive accounts, some lack the flair, thrust and innovation to make the viewers give a hoot. Research is imperative but there is only so much required on screen to service the story. An info abundance can certainly bamboozle (instead of inform), distract from the purpose and make for gruelling, monotonous viewing. Thankfully Mavis! isn’t like that. Our star describes her life and career with a succinct geniality and never dodders.

Mavis! includes rehearsal/concert footage, excerpts from TV gigs, an old Bob Dylan performance and stock interview with the folk legend, Newport Festival footage with Wilco and ancient Super 8 material captured while the band toured mid-America in the 1950s. Documentary shot footage of more recent concerts instil a fresh perspective while Mavis reminisces with wit and benevolence. The sight of her goading the backing singers back on stage for an encore while they’re having a sit down, is hilarious, as is Mavis’ remark at the concert’s conclusion: “that’s the best time I had since I got my new knees”. Other blasé comments will leave viewers giggling well into the next scene. When discussing the time Bob Dylan proposed (via her father), Mavis refers to the sand and glue voiced legend as a “cute guy” before calmly adding “we may have smooched”.

The film also focuses on her father and founding band member Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who was a key driving force. Even though Pops’ attitude towards the industry was partly to blame for their failure to succeed in America throughout the 1950s, it was his folk/blues guitar playing that set them apart from other gospel bands at the time. The group faced problems with touring in parts of the US due to the inherent racism in certain communities. They also had affiliations with Martin Luther King, who inspired them to write freedom songs such as: “Why am I treated so bad?” earning Mavis the label of “Civil Rights icon”.

Mavis! charts the band’s history from the 50s to now, and features interviews with Public Enemy member Chuck D, Civil Rights Activist Julian Bond and silver-haired/ mullet-headed musician Marty Stuart, amongst others. Jessica Edwards’ film opens and closes with The Staples today, at a time when they are working on new material and in the process of expanding their fan base. “I’ll stop singing when I have nothing else to say” states the star with her matchless outlook and an enthusiasm that permeates throughout this serene yet stirring account. Mavis! tells an upbeat, enlightening and tender tale that is also poignant, edifying and worthy of its exclamation mark. An inspiring story of a soaring sound and its most joyous, glistening star.

Mavis! is released on February 19th.

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Daniel Goodwin is a prevalent film writer for multiple websites including HeyUGuys, Scream Horror Magazine, Little White Lies, i-D and Dazed. After studying Film, Media and Cultural Studies at university and Creative Writing at the London School of Journalism, Daniel went on to work in TV production for Hat Trick Productions, So Television and The London Studios. He has also worked at the Home Office, in the private office of Hilary Benn MP and the Coroner's and Burials Department, as well as on the Movies on Pay TV market investigation for the Competition Commission.
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