76-year-old Mavis Staples hasn’t run out of songs to sing or stuff to say. Mavis! depicts the legendary singer’s journey across genres and through decades of performances with clips from past and present. Much of Mavis! is spent in the lively and instantly delightful presence of the titular singer. Whether listening to her booming vocals or watching her warmly point and smile at someone in her audience, Mavis Staples makes for an endearing narrator for her own story. Despite the documentary’s lack of extensive details, Mavis! provides a comprehensive look at the vocalist’s life and career, punctuated by insightful talking head tidbits.
Tracing Mavis’ roots from her childhood years in Chicago through her more recent tours and collaborations with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, Mavis! looks beyond the music to profile The Staple Singers family and their position in a burgeoning civil rights movement.
One thing that neither documentarian Jessica Edwards – making her feature debut – nor Mavis herself seems interested in exploring are personal matters. Both Mavis’ mother and her brief marriage to Spencer Leak are reduced to footnotes, although Edwards does get Staples to giggle about “smooching” Bob Dylan. Instead, Mavis!, contrary to what its title might suggest, devotes large sections to the singer’s father, Pops Staples.
Leader of The Staple Singers, Pops is given credit for a lot of Mavis’ early success by the interviewed biographers as well as the singer herself. His incorporation of blues guitar riffs into a gospel sound set the family band on a path that allowed them to blend genres from folk to R&B. The documentary fairly clearly charts out the band’s growth and evolution.
Mavis is a passionate, enthralling storyteller, particularly when describing her father’s exploits. As Pops became compelled by the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. to write “freedom songs,” The Staple Singers eventually wrote “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” The song would become one of MLK’s favorites, and Mavis proudly recounts that King would ask, “Stape, you gonna’ sing my song tonight?” before shows.
In its interviews, the documentary sharply articulates some of Mavis’ harder to define singular characteristics. Singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt talks about Mavis’ sensual but not salacious sound, and rapper Chuck D labels her, “gospel rough.” Her rousing voice, which booms over her backing band and dominates the documentary soundtrack, is the film’s most consistently redeeming element.
Often, the documentary can’t match Mavis’ level of energy. She bounds off stage exclaiming, “that’s the best time I had y’all since I got my new knees,” but it isn’t palpable from the blandly filmed performances. Arranged into a collection of still, sloppily edited medium shots, the lack of dynamism sucks the forcefulness from Mavis’ stage presence. Her voice is better exemplified through the archival clips, in which Staples is filmed with moving cameras or looking straight into the lens.
Mavis!’s generic assembly is benefitted by the utterly charming subject at its center. The documentary never digs deeply into any of aspect of Mavis’ career or lingers on any discomfort. The pattern of short, observational talking head responses doesn’t allow for the nuances of Mavis’ ascension and longevity. Her life has brushed up against a revolving door of iconic figures, from Julian Bond to Prince, and Mavis! delivers bursts of excitement with each new, recognizable face. Among the most pleasant surprises is footage of a sweet, relaxed jam session between Mavis and the late Levon Helm, who passed away in 2012.
Jessica Edwards’ biography doc is conventional but effective. Mavis! exhibits the singer’s powerful, deep register voice within the context of her career, though the documentary’s attempts to incorporate a modern spin on its social justice platform isn’t quite as impactful. Mavis herself is undeniably watchable, and an obvious authority on her own accomplishments; however, she remains approachable in her demeanor. “I’m just everyday people,” she explains while back at home in Chicago. Congeniality or not, her great talent gets a joyful showcase in Mavis!
A standard but enjoyable biographical documentary, Mavis! is elevated by the warm, dynamic presence of gospel and soul legend Mavis Staples.