Director: Jessica Edwards
Cast: Mavis Staples
Watch Mavis! online in the UK: iTunes / Sky Store
Them! Oliver! Airplane! It takes something special for a film to carry such excited punctuation. Mavis!, out now in cinemas and on VOD, more than earns the exclamation mark in its title.
The film profiles the musical career of the only Staples more famous than the chain of office supply stores: Mavis Staples, one of the Staples Sisters. The family group started out in the 1940s singing dainties such as Will the Circle Be Unbroken in churches. 60 odd years later and Mavis is still going strong, touring the country and belting out old hits with an irresitible growl.
Concert footage old and new is rolled out at an engaging lick by director Jessica Edwards, cut with insights from friends, colleagues and other musicians. But there is more to Mavis! than a mere by-the-numbers musical documentary, which elevates it above the usual promotional puff piece – there is grit beneath the vinyl gloss.
The movie doesn’t shy away the group’s origins, which saw them performing in the Deep South at a time when black singers didn’t stay in public hotels due to fears of safety. It also doesn’t disguise the disgust from members of their own community, as the band made the taboo move from singing pure gospel to secular numbers. (“They’re dancing like everyone else,” snaps Mavis, with dismissive sass.) These details make the focus on the Staple Sisters’ success more insightful than idolatry; if you haven’t heard of them today, you’re guaranteed to have heard one of their songs (their hits include the ever-catchy I’ll Take You There), or a song by someone else they influenced.
Even for fans, it’s perhaps surprising just how much the small gang managed to impact the music industry – and a lot of that is down to her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, whose nose for commerce kept what could’ve been a dated act always up to speed with the times. For all the praise heaped on Mavis’ uniquely deep vocals, which even had a young Bob Dylan weak at the knees, it’s telling that a documentary called Mavis is happy to spend half its runtime focusing on her dad – and even more telling that the selfless shift in subject is instigated by her.
That focus also highlights the group’s connection to Martin Luther King Jr., whose civil rights campaign inspired Pops to bring message songs (such as Why Am I Treated So Bad?) into their act – cementing their place in both history and culture. As much a lesson as it is a jukebox, the result celebrates Mavis, but also convincingly honours Pops as an underrated innovator upon the music world. (One of the most moving moments occurs when Mavis is saying nothing and simply listening to a recording of her dad.)
The Staples’ innovation and influence can still be heard today, as all that history feeds into her performances on stage in her 70s; like Edwards, there’s a tangible sense that Mavis isn’t going through the motions, but means every beat. She’s amazing to see in action, screaming, shouting, waving her arms about and laughing without any inhibition whatsoever. From amusing anecdotes to catchy concert clips, the result is a relentlessly upbeat documenary – a welcome contrast to a growing number of shocking true-crime stories. As much fun to listen as to watch, Mavis! is a tribute to talent and the passion to continue using it, both for entertainment value and spiritual conviction. One shot of her singing Marching the Freedom Highway sees her repeating the final line over and over again. Eventually, the screen fades out. She’s probably still singing right now.
Photo: Photo courtesy of Miikka Skaffari/Film First Co