Jessica Edwards brings to the hemisphere of modern music lovers the legend of singing prodigy, social rights activist and all around awesome lady, the great Mavis Staples. In Mavis! we see the still active Mavis as she preps for concerts and get front row seats to see this legend perform, noting admirably that she still does so despite needing a cane to walk (which she brings on stage with her and ends up using as a dancing prop no less!). But we also get an idea of how this woman became who she is today by delving into her humble beginnings and the birth of the family group headed by her father and including herself and her siblings.
Mavis! is part biography, part history lesson and part musical education. It follows Mavis in her present day and hints back to the past as a way to connect the dots and help those who may not be familiar with there work to catch up and appreciate her more.
With a voice like a polished, adult singer by age 12, Mavis suddenly became the star of her family’s band, The Staple Singers, and the family became renowned for their blues-inspired gospel style. Having begun in the ‘50s and changed enough to adapt to and be relevant in every decade since, the Staples Singers are an icon when it comes to keeping up with the times. From changing their sound to fit in with what was popular, to using their music for social activism after meeting and befriending Dr. Martin Luther King, to Mavis attempting to branch out on her own and abandoning that venture when she couldn’t get the creative control she deserved, Mavis! is one of those rare examples of a film that educates you while keeping you wildly entertained.
While Mavis herself is the one to predominantly tell the story of her own life, coupled with friends and colleagues, it’s the scenes where we can see Mavis talking that are the best for she is so lively and has an abundance of stories to tell which are all lovely to hear, especially when she recounts her teenage romance with Bob Dylan. Dylan himself recounts the romance and it’s not only glorious to see these two speak of an interracial romance during the Jim Crow era with fondness and love, but to see that Mavis, despite her dedication to her work, was and always has been just an average girl who could develop crushes on cute, gawky singers.
Mavis’s relationship with her beloved father is touching since Mavis looked up to and loved him dearly and her father—a feminist before his time, it seemed—was nothing but supportive and encouraging of his talented daughter’s ambition. It was also the elder Staple who struck up an acquaintance with Dr. King and became fast friends with him, thus helping the entire Staples clan step into the world of civil rights activism, something that Mavis is still active in today.
Mavis! won’t give you a thorough history of the singer’s early life, but will tell you enough to appreciate the woman who has managed to keep up with the times and collect fans over her decades-long career. It will introduce you to a woman with an enviable voice and a love and passion for music that can seldom be matched nowadays. It’ll leave you wanting to hear more of this woman and make you wonder how you could have gone your whole life not knowing of her. Mavis! is an admirable tribute to a woman who surpasses time and continues to do her own thing.
Mavis! opens in Toronto today at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.