Mavis!

 

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What could have been just another musical bio-pic is made special by the extraordinary appeal of its leading figure, Mavis Staples. 

 

Mavis Staples is 76-years-old but still going strong, a fact amply confirmed by recent footage of her singing in this captivating documentary. On paper Jessica Edwards’s film may sound like nothing special: this is, after all, yet another feature film about a singer looking back on the career and the life as it intersperses old material with fresh comments from associates and family. Furthermore, Mavis, who started out as one of The Staples Singers performing with siblings and with her father, Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples, was an African-American whose initial repertoire consisted of standard gospel songs – a category of music appealing to some more than to others.
 

Mavis!

Something to sing about: Mavis Staples 

 

But in every respect Mavis! proves far more rewarding than this might suggest. First, there’s the career itself with Mavis, the stand-out member of the group, moving on from gospel to soul in the early 1970s by which time The Staples Singers had already embraced freedom songs as a response to the rhetoric of Martin Luther King and had not held back from doing the first cover version of one of Bob Dylan’s songs (her father was an admirer of Dylan who seems at one time to have taken a romantic interest in Mavis but she was too devoted to her music to consider taking it further).

 

Such matters as Mavis’s marriage in 1964 are quickly passed over – she would divorce without having had children after putting her career first. But what does emerge fully – and does do very touchingly - are the close bonds between Mavis and the other family members, not least her sister Yvonne and her father who lived to the age of 86. Just as one believes Mavis when she declares that she has never been on a star trip, so too there is no sense of fabrication when she tearfully joins in a remade version of a recording of her father singing in old age and declares “I miss him so much”.

 

This film is that rarity, a work that underlines the positive side of family life. In addition there is the history of Mavis’s later career, both its ups and downs, which happily curves upwards again as we come to more recent times with Mavis winning a Grammy award as she continues to sing with real clarity of diction and an abidingly strong voice. She does not hide her continuing Christian beliefs which have helped her to remain true to herself. The Staples Singers were glimpsed back in 1978 in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, but this is the film that spotlights them and I’m glad that it exists so that more people can get to meet Mavis Staples. She is decidedly worth knowing.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring Mavis Staples, Bob Dylan, Chuck D, Al Bell, Leon Helm, Julian Bond, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Tweedy, Spencer Tweedy.

 

Dir Jessica Edwards, Pro Rachel Mills and Edwards, Ph Keith Walker, Ed Amy Foote.

A Film First production-Dogwoof.
80 mins. USA. 2015. Rel: 19 February 2015. Cert. PG
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