Film review: Mavis!

David Gritten / 18 February 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten admires a terrific new documentary about the legendary singer Mavis Staples.

At the age of 76, Mavis Staples, the extraordinary singer who effortlessly incorporates blues, soul and R&B into her gospel music repertoire, is still touring and performing on stage. There’s something unstoppable about her; she seems like a kind of life force.

This, at least, is how she comes across in Jennifer Edwards’s respectful but absorbing documentary Mavis!, which capably captures her essence through interviews and performance footage.  

Hers is a fascinating story, personally and musically, and she tells it with an unvarnished honesty. She began her singing career with her family gospel group the Staple Singers, headed by her father Pops Staples, and featuring four of his children.

Mavis was always the stand-out in the group – initially as a pretty teenage girl with an unexpectedly deep, roaring voice. The group enjoyed a hugely successful career, then under Pops’s influence, broadened their range to encompass folk, blues and other styles.

Pops (who died in 2000) was an intriguing innovator; he played guitar on stage with his children, gradually making it sound more bluesy. This incurred some disapproval in the gospel music community, who felt he ‘crossed a line’ by including secular influences.

The Staple Singers were also the first major gospel group to be impressed by Martin Luther King. Pops met Dr. King at a church where he was about to address a congregation, and later told his children: “I like this man’s message. “If you can preach it, you can sing it.” And so the Staple Singers added protest songs to their act.

The performance footage in Mavis! is certainly memorable, but so are Mavis’s reminiscences. It turns out Bob Dylan, one of her boyfriends, was serious about wanting to marry her. Dylan, interviewed on camera, doesn’t directly address that point, but is effusive about her singing: after hearing her performance of a gospel song called Sit Down Servant, he remembers: “it made me stay up for a week.”

This is a terrific tribute to a great artist. For all her apparent candour about herself and her career, there isn’t much insight into what sustains her. She claims touring is its own reward; she might walk on stage with a cane these days, but performing clearly rejuvenates her. On camera, she is brash and not without self-regard, but there’s also a charm to her that is hugely appealing. So why does Mavis keeps going? Maybe because that’s simply what Mavis does.

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