- An Engaging Subject
- Powerful Music
- Slick Editing
- Felt Rushed
The breezy positivity of Jessica Edwards‘ debut documentary “Mavis!” echoes the outlook of its subject, the lively soul legend Mavis Staples, who’s been performing for six decades with no plans to retire. “I’ll stop singing when I have nothing left to say,” Staples asserts, “and you know, that ain’t gonna happen.”
The film offers an introduction to the indefatigable singer; historical context for the Staple Singers, formed by Roebuck “Pops” Staples as a family gospel group; and much appreciation of Mavis’ honey-with-grit voice, which may have lost some strength over the years, but none of its power.
However, Mavis Staples doesn’t use her deep, soul-scarring voice for anything as prosaic as mere singing. Now 76 and still performing, she captures rooms, seizes attention, and sends her audience into anything from raptured bliss to teary-eyed sorrow to berserk frenzy.
A political activist, solo artist, group performer and collaborator, and someone who has spanned seven musical genres, there’s not much Mavis Staples hasn’t done. Her civil rights activism – which began through her father’s friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., put the Staple Singers at the heart of the civil rights movement as they begin singing about their situation, masterful exponents of the freedom song (“Respect Yourself“, “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” and “I’ll Take You There“). It’s a daring political move only briefly touched upon.
This is a deliberate choice by Edwards, who chooses to tackle Mavis’ rich career in a less than an hour of a half. This approach limits specifics, and required a lot of the first-time Director, and she delivered, expertly cutting between present day and archive footage while using a variety of interviews to squeeze in as much as possible.
Edwards’ draws on high calibre interviewees, Bob Dylan the pick as he reveals his love of their music, and according to Mavis, his love of her after he proposes. Each interviewee helps to provide a rich background to Mavis’ music and their movements, and such figures (including the likes of Chuck D, Bonnie Raitt, Curtis Mayfield, Jeff Tweedy, and ‘The Band’) enliven the doc’s intellectual atmosphere.
And while the interviews are streamlined to keep the narrative moving forward at pace, this allows our star and her collaborators to describe her life and career with a succinct geniality and never dodders. The finer aspects of her story surface gracefully and our subject never lets negativity or irrelevant details get in the way of a yarn, which is thankfully an ethos that the film-makers employ.
Indeed, “Mavis!” is refreshing for actually being about music, rather than bogging itself down with extraneous facts and mechanically exhaustive accounts of the life of the singer.
The film really lifts in the final third, where, after having dashed through her life, Mavis! emerges as a love story after all. Not with torrid romances or glitzy showbiz glamour; the real relationship is between Mavis and her father. She speaks of his passing with barely constrained emotion, and when she allows Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to finish Pops’ final recordings, she listens with tears welling. There’s no family discord or creative tension in their relationship, just love.
The effect is overwhelming, “I want to go and give my dad a hug,” is actually the first thing I heard an audience member say as I left the screening. It’s a sentiment that was likely shared by the audience after witnessing such a tender and earnest look into Mavis’ relationship with her father and how he and her family helped shape her career and who she is as a person.
A more probing biographical film might have explored the peerless musical collaboration of Mavis and Pops Staples beyond observing a proud daughter champion her father as an underrated guitarist and unheralded trailblazer. But Edwards is content with presenting Mavis as she sees herself: as the conduit for a song’s message, and a voice to uplift the weary.
This is a powerful documentary that not only echoes the wonderful life events of Mavis, but also educates the viewer on how Mavis and her family influenced the course of American music throughout the 20th century. An engaging, inspiring, and thoroughly enjoyable documentary.
|Directed By:||Jessica Edwards|
|Written By:||Jessica Edwards|
|Runtime:||1 hr. 20 min.|