Music journalists must have a hard time describing the voice of an artist as exceptional and influential as Mavis Staples. From bassy depths soars a finely calibrated howitzer of sorrowful joy, erupting between mellow moments of syrupy-smooth soul. Perhaps Rolling Stone could say it better. A real firecracker, and fully deserving of the exclamation mark attached to this loving bio- documentary, Mavis! tells the remarkable life story of a woman whose career spans more than six decades and – with the help of a cane or a friendly arm to lean on – is still going strong. Writer- director Jessica Edwards opts for a tone of all-out adulation, which admittedly is well earned.
Watching and listening to Staples for the lickety-split duration of just 80 minutes is a delight given what a character she is. Introduced with a cup of tea in one hand, a walking stick in the other, she sings acapella with her backing band to warm up before a gig and is rarely seen without the broadest of grins. Her ongoing enthusiasm and the simple brilliance of such behind the scenes performances as well as cuts to and from stage appearances prove just what a rare, invigorating and truly humble talent she remains even if she isn’t “as frisky” as she used to be. Born and raised in Chicago’s South Side, Mavis’s gift was recognised in her early adolescence, nurtured by her loving father ‘Pop’, a highly gifted vocalist and guitarist in his own right.
Plaudits from Bonnie Raitt, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Bob Dylan and a collaboration with The Band on Scorsese’s The Last Waltz attest to both the calibre and diversity of musicians for whom The Staple Singers were a supreme influence. From humble beginnings in the early 1950s, Edwards paints how the family band’s trendsetting music transcended and combined gospel, blues, folk and beyond. With sister Yvonne forever at her side nowadays, the family dynamics of yesteryear are, to a large extent, swept under the carpet below a very high pedestal on which Pop was perched. A brother and sister who sang backing vocals are given a cursory mention and Mama Staple barely features. Grainy home video footage lends a richness to the reminiscence but the prominent good times overwhelm the bad that we are left to assume must have occurred at some point.
Likewise, the union of mutual respect between Pop and Martin Luther King, the tremendous fillip The Staples’ freedom songs were to the Civil Rights Movement and her ongoing activism to this day through music never quite hit the resounding crescendo they could have done, and are left unresolved. “I’m just every day people,” says Staples upon returning home, looking forward to sleeping in her own bed and going to her local shops. Although Mavis! doesn’t quite have the same scope as the extraordinary vocal range of its magnetic, all-round wonderful subject, her zest for life, exuberance and good nature have clearly rubbed off on Edwards and it’s likely they will on audiences too.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens