'Mavis!' Sings

(USA, 81 min.)
Dir. Jessica Edwards
Photo courtesy of Chris Strong/Film First C

The year of the music doc continues to roll as Mavis! offers soulful sweetness. This documentary feature about soul/gospel icon Mavis Staples is a joy to watch. Maybe it’s the music or maybe it’s Mavis’s vibrant personality, but this film by Canuck native Jessica Edwards is consistently appealing. Mavis! sings.

Mavis! has tough competition as similar films, like, say, Miss Sharon Jones! or What Happened, Miss Simone? find comparable character portraits that extend to the larger social dynamics. Mavis! doesn’t offer the same conflict and tumultuous narrative arc that the other music docs do, like Sharon Jones kicking cancer in the butt, but the film admirably tells a story of a music icon who is still kicking after fifty years in the business. It really counts for something that she’s still up there on stage with so much energy.

The film chronicles Staples’ career from its early beginnings, as she recalls performing with her family band The Staples Singers in the early 1960s. Her stories tell of the family’s growth under the guidance of her father, Pa Staples, from their gospel roots to their growth to mainstream soul. Staples shows wonderful admiration for her father as she recalls how he nurtured the group. Archival footage, a mix of old photos and TV footage, offers a glimpse at the group’s style and sweetness. The Staples Singers have an earnest wholesomeness to them with their gospel tunes and churchly attire, but Mavis’s gravelly voice injects something sexy to the harmony. People probably had to go to confession when the music first came out, as interviews with talking heads all note how the sex appeal of The Staples Singers had fans crying “Halleluiah!”

Edwards finds a groove that works well with music docs that chronicle success stories of the 1960s and 70s. As Mavis reflects on her life in a series of interviews, Mavis! tells of The Staples Singers’ evolution from the safe-if-sexy conservatism of gospel music to singing provocative songs of freedom as the band, especially Pa Staples, found inspiration in the lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Muscle Shoals and What Happened, Miss Simone?, Mavis! intimately connects the singers’ growth as artists with America’s subsequent growth as a more progressive nation during the explosive days of the Civil Rights Movement. Edwards also draws out the elements of music that come from the South, especially characteristics like Pa Staples’ guitar picking, that bring distinct tones of black American music into the urban soundscapes.

Interviewees like Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, and Sharon Jones complement the story of the Staples’ success and elaborate upon their place in the world of music. The Staples’ growth as soul singers, and the corresponding charges from fans that they sold out, mirrors Dylan’s shift from acoustic folk to electric, so his place in the film feels significant.

The biggest, loudest, clearest voice, though, is that of Miss Mavis Staples as she jovially talks about her career. She’s a great storyteller and instantly likable. There’s not a bad word about anyone to be said, even when she touches upon her difficulty landing deals with producers and labels late in her career.

Footage of Staples performing in the present are equally funky as she struts her stuff on stage with a cane and shrieks into the microphone like a young ingénue. Edwards finds a timeless quality to Mavis’s voice as the film frequently cuts back to scenes of Mavis performing at a single concert in the park, on her birthday no less, and the film never feels like a history lesson, throwback, or life portrait since Mavis! depicts the singer as being as active as ever. It’s a celebration of ongoing success. Mavis! is a toe-tapping delight.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Mavis! opens in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
Director Jessica Edwards will do Q&As on Nov. 13, 4:00 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. and Nov. 14 at 4:00 p.m.

It screens in Vancouver (Vancity) and Saskatoon (Broadway) on Nov. 14, Winnipeg (Cinematheque) on Nov. 20, Victoria (Cinecenta) on Nov. 22 and Montreal (Cinema du Parc) date TBD.