It was a surreal, rare privilege to be able to watch the world premiere of Mavis!, the documentary about the inimitably significant career of 75-year-old soul legend Mavis Staples, with the film’s subject in the crowd, watching the finished project, like the rest of us, for the first time. But far more than just a special experience for the audience, her presence was significant for what it indicated about her legacy: she is still here, trying to find the truth with music.
By virtue of Staples’ lengthy professional trajectory, the sheer amount of material that Mavis! had to cover was daunting, but the film never once felt bogged down. Always waltzing forward, prioritizing and soundtracking key periods in her life, the film transitions gracefully by cutting back to present day footage of performances and interviews conducted in her hometown of Chicago. It always feels like the past is informing the present, and the present always feels like the most important chapter of her life. “The important thing was to keep it about now,” explained producer director Jessica Edwards at the panel after the film concluded.
The most resonant historical chapters of the documentary were those that focused on the Staples Singers in the mid 60s. Firstly the film did an excellent job of demonstrating how progressive a bandleader Mavis’s father Pops was from the outset. Blending blues and gospel—at the time this was considered iconoclastic, even heretical—Pops was a visionary (The Staples Singers were the first gospel band to cover Bob Dylan) and provided the ideal environment for Mavis and her siblings to thrive as musicians.
Secondly, Mavis! felt its most urgent when recounting the band’s contributions to the civil rights movement (“Why Am I Treated So Bad”) and their relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King. Given the racially tense and fraught year Americans suffered in 2014, this part of their narrative felt especially relevant. It was also warming to hear anecdotes about King approaching Pops to play his favorite song (see above) whenever they played at church: “Stape, you gonna sing my song tonight, right?”
As engaging as it was to absorb the history of the dynamic music that Staples and her family made throughout the course of several decades, the film’s most consistently rewarding moments were those spent focusing on Mavis’s relationships with the community of musicians that helped her grow spiritually and artistically throughout her life. Fundamentally, this was a film about family.
There are so many impressive guests in this film, and all of them felt integral in telling Staples’ story. I cried when Staples went down to Levon Helms’ studio to sing one final time with her good friend before he was to pass away; I laughed when I saw Prince fawning over the soul singer during their collaborative sessions in 1980s, and I cried again when Mavis broke down in front of Jeff Tweedy at his Chicago studio, while listening to one of her father’s songs that the Wilco frontman had remastered. Throughout the present-day portions of the film, Mavis’s older sister Yvonne was always close at hand, whether they were performing together, running errands or reminiscing about their father. It was powerful to realize that after all this time, the music never just existed in and of itself—it always represented the inextricable links and devotion to those she loved and those that helped her get by.
But her voice also represents her unyielding ambitions to make noise about things that matter to her: “I’ll stop singing when I have nothing left to say, and you know, that ain’t gonna happen.”
Rating 5 out of 5 burritos