Mavis! is an excellent biography celebrating the career of R&B/gospel legend Mavis Staples, and the exclamation point in the title of this documentary is well deserved.The warm and reflective film, which premiered on HBO on February 29, traces Staples’ humble beginnings from Chicago’s South Side to how the 76-year-old is still singing and touring with no signs of slowing down.
With a career spanning six decades, the documentary shows how her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, was a real businessman and musical innovator. Pops, along with his son Pervis and daughters Mavis, Cleotha, and Yvonne, became known as The Staples Singers (Pervis left the group in the late ‘60s), and dealt with criticism when their turn toward singing secular music left many believing they were abandoning their gospel roots. The film asserts that, although the group’s hits such as “I’ll Take You There” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” were secular, they still contained spiritual messages which reached a much wider audience than before. Indeed, the Staples Singers’ music transcended and combined blues, gospel, folk, and soul, and influenced generations of artists that followed them.
Mavis! also examines the Staples family’s closeness to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and how important their music was to the Civil Rights Movement. To this very day, Mavis Staples is an ongoing activist for civil rights.
Documentary writer/director Jessica Edwards uses a variety of archival footage as well as reflections and plaudits from Chuck D, Julian Bond, Bob Dylan and many others to paint a glowing portrait of a special lady with the distinctive soulful voice. Speaking of Dylan, the documentary touches on how he fell head over heels in love with Staples and proposed to her. Although the marriage never happened, Staples admits there were “some smooches” that occurred between the two.
The whole heart and soul of Mavis! shows how the beloved icon is a survivor on different levels, from dealing with racism and how she and her family had to confront the ever-changing scope of popular music, to how as a solo artist in the ‘90s she struggled to find a record deal and an audience that still accepted her music.
Taught by her father to always stay humble, Staples states in the film, “I’m just everyday people.” The documentary indeed illustrates just that.
Mavis Staples new CD, Livin’ On A High Note, is available on Amazon.