Mavis! is an imperfect documentary about an endlessly intriguing subject.
The film ?” debuting Feb. 29 on HBO ?” suffers from the same Achilles heel that’s plagued so many docs before by skating over the deepest, most complex parts of its protagonist’s life ?” the type of material that, if fully explored, fills a film with compelling grit and raw honesty.
Instead, this movie operates more like a #Love letter to its beloved star: legendary singer Mavis Staples. But for this, all of its sins can be forgiven. Staples is a hero worth rooting for, a once-in-a-lifetime talent worthy of numerous (and more creatively daring) features.
Mavis! has a classic chronological structure, making the case for Staples as one of the most iconic singers of her time. You’ll find it hard to argue with that after the film’s jam-packed hour and 20 minutes is up.
Staples, now 76, began her career singing gospel music in the late 1950s with her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and siblings Cleotha, Yvonne and Purvis. They called themselves the Staple Singers, and quickly gained an audience for Pops’ blend of bluesy, tremolo guitar and classic gospel music.
But it was young Mavis’ vocals, deep and bruising, that carried the group to radio success and made their music the stuff of legend, material that would influence Prince, Bob Dylan and more.
In 1972, the Staple Singers notched their first number one record, the groovy “I’ll Take You There” ?” a song you’ve probably heard in countless #Movies, TV shows and commercials.
In this respect, the documentary does a great job of highlighting the rise of the Staple Singers, functioning as a straightforward piece of historical filmmaking. It chronicles their rise, using ample vintage footage and interviews with Mavis herself, as well as historians and artists like Bonnie Raitt and Chuck D.
It hits all the exciting notes ?” like Roebuck’s friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., who was a huge fan of the group. As a result, Staples still sings socially conscious music in her sets, a tribute to her cvil rights past.
The documentary also covers young Mavis’ relationship with a still under-the-radar Bob Dylan.
The documentary covers young Mavis’ relationship with a still under-the-radar Bob Dylan. There’s also a heartwarming portion dedicated to the Staple Singers’ work with the Band. Details like this are delightful, and almost keep you from questioning why it glosses over some of the more difficult aspects of Staples’ life.
For example: What’s it really like being a teenager on the road and performing with your father and siblings every night? The family must have fought, or had creative arguments at the very least. There are also hints here and there about failed marriages and failed stabs at parenthood that are never really explored. Though Staples doesn’t owe anyone these details of her life, it’s hard to fight your own curiosity.
The documentary takes care to preserve the most intimate details about her personal story, keeping its eyes firmly focused on her music career.
Mavis (left) and her sister.
Mavis herself is an infectious spirit, an easy-to-laugh storyteller who’s working just as hard now as she was when the Staple Singers began. She’s also pulling in a new audience thanks to her work with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, even now evolving as an artist and recently winning her second Grammy ever this year.
“I’ll stop singing when I have nothing left to say … and that ain’t gonna happen,” she notes at the beginning of the film.
And why would she? After all these years, her voice is still electrifying.
At its best, Mavis! operates as a persuasive argument for hailing Staples as the best singer of her generation. If her solo career managed to take off when it should have, her name would be up there with iconic ones like Aretha and Patti and Tina. If you’ve been a longtime fan, her name already is up there.
And if you’re discovering her for the first time, you’ll be recalibrating your personal “Best Singers of All Time” list before the credits roll.
Mavis! premieres on HBO Feb. 29.