If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good music documentary. Music is one of (if not the) most important art-forms, with an incredibly rich history. And as something of a music buff, I’ve always been interested in all eras and genres - so it’s rare I find someone to learn about that I’m largely unfamiliar with. Enter Mavis Staples. I’ve always been aware of The Staple Singers and their cultural relevance within the civil rights movement, but I have never done that much digging and investigating where Mavis herself is concerned. I guess I’m not the only one, because out now on DVD comes Mavis!, a documentary about the gospel singer’s life.
Mavis Staples was born in Chicago back in 1939, and began singing with her family locally at church when she was 11 years old. Now 76, she is currently touring with Bob Dylan. How did she get here? Mavis!, directed by Jessica Edwards, tells us everything we need to know at a brisk pace. Clocking in at 80 minutes, the film doesn’t outstay its welcome, nor does it have room for an unnecessary filler or padding. Covering 50+ years in this runtime, the film moves along chronologically; covering her childhood, Staple Singers-era, solo career and anything else worth mentioning – including a time Bob Dylan proposed to her and she turned him down. Ouch!
Documentaries like this are ‘very much of a muchness’, as the saying goes. There’s not much they can do to stand out as being original or memorable as such, their only job is to present history in an entertaining and engrossing way and if they can do that, they have succeeded. Mavis! certainly does. The film is full of archive footage right down to Mavis’ early music performances and family photographs, and we also have interesting newly shot interviews throughout the film with her friends and family – including the gruff old Bob Dylan himself, in his trademark hat. Still a cool guy.
But the main thing about Mavis! that makes it succeed is how the film’s delivery is such a faithful representation of the lady herself. The documentary oozes warmth, tenderness and love throughout which is none more evident than when Mavis is talking to us. Here’s an endlessly passionate and kind-hearted woman who refuses to stop, sharing her music with the world all year round. “I have weathered the storms, I’ve fallen down and gotten back up” she says. As we learn about her long and fascinating life, this rings true. And her passion from the civil rights era has never ceased, as she continues to sing politically charged songs – she claims things still haven’t changed enough since Martin Luther King Jr’s work, and she will continue to sing these songs until they do. She’s a truly inspirational figure, and wholly deserving of this fond celebration. You can try and resist the film’s joyful enthusiasm but it’s contagious, and before you know it you’ll have a big smile on your face.
Ultimately, Mavis! is difficult to review. At a short length and featuring a rather basic delivery style, there isn’t a huge amount you can say about it. It doesn’t do anything to reinvent the documentary genre, nor does it do anything to make itself unforgettable. But for its short 80 minute runtime, Mavis! is an endearing and engrossing study of an inspirational, larger-than-life figure who truly deserves this warm-hearted celebration. If you’re a music buff or a documentary fan, check it out.
Mavis! is a wonderful little film, and deserving of your time. Come on, it’s only 80 minutes. 4/5.
Mavis! at CeX
Get your daily CeX at