Mavis Staples doesn’t use her deep, soul-scarring voice for anything as prosaic as mere singing. Now 76 and still performing, she captures rooms, seizes attention, and sends her audience into anything from raptured bliss to teary-eyed sorrow to berserk frenzy. A political activist, solo artist, group performer and collaborator, and, according to her official biographer, a singer who has spanned seven musical genres, there’s not much she hasn’t done. All of which is remarkably hard to capture in less than an hour and a half. Credit then to HBO’s documentary Mavis!, directed by Jessica Edwards, for managing to pack in so much of a well-lived life.
Choosing to tackle Mavis Staples’ career in such a condensed running time is certainly ambitious. It limits specifics, moving swiftly through the highlights of a career that has taken her from Chicago gospel star to one of the musical voices of the civil rights movement, and crossovers into folk and rock and pretty much everything else beyond, including as a recent Grammy winning comeback kid. Edwards doesn’t try anything spectacular, cutting between present day and archive footage while using a variety of interviews to squeeze in as much as possible. It’s a slick, proficient exercise, staying carefully within the confines of documentary conventions, and doing a damn good job in the process.
There’s little need for filmmaking pyrotechnics anyway; not when Mavis is the subject. Infectiously upbeat, she stands where she should: slap bang in the centre of what amounts to a carefully edited tribute to her career. Starting out midway through the 20th century, she performed as part of The Staple Singers, a hugely influential group led by her father Pops Staples, playing a converted style of blues on his guitar that took gospel in a different direction. Their vast catalogue of hits included versions of “Respect Yourself”, “I’ll Take You There”, and “Let’s Do It Again”. While she sang with her siblings, Mavis was always the centrepiece, the others backing her virtuoso performances.
Demonstrating her impact, Edwards’ draws on high calibre interviewees, Bob Dylan the pick as he reveals his love of their music, and according to Mavis, his love of her after he proposes. This isn’t a story of intimate personal secrets, though. Mavis! has no interest in her love life; the Dylan anecdote is thrown in as an amusing aside by Mavis herself. Nothing is made of her private life, or anything else that happened out of the limelight. This is all about Mavis on stage. Even with that limitation, there’s plenty to talk about.
The most notable is Pops’ friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., putting the Staple Singers at the heart of the civil rights movement as they begin singing about their situation, masterful exponents of the freedom song. It’s a daring political move only briefly touched upon. The same happens when they move from gospel to folk, alienating some fans and winning more, or when they start to influence rock, performing with The Band. The Staples family doesn’t receive much attention, either. Pops is spoken of but rarely discussed in detail; the rest of the family is ignored. Early on, the importance of her sister Yvonne is mentioned, and then side-lined.
Then again, everything has to be streamlined to keep moving forward. Mavis branches off into a solo career, always singing with the family even if they stop recording. She becomes a sought-after collaborator, called up by Prince in the ’80s. Later, after the passing of Pops in 2000, she relaunches herself, supported by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, a long-time fan who approaches her to ask if he can produce her records. Their creative relationship has blossomed, with recent Grammy nominations. There’s no sign of her slowing down after all these years. It’s a question she addresses directly. She’ll stop when she’s dead, and even then she’ll carry on from up in heaven.
Near the end, having dashed through her life, Mavis! emerges as a love story after all. Not with torrid romances or glitzy showbiz glamour; the real relationship is between Mavis and her father. She speaks of his passing with barely constrained emotion, and when she allows Tweedy to finish Pops’ final recordings, she listens with tears welling. There’s no family discord or creative tension in their relationship, just love. It’s a rare moment of emotion in an otherwise comprehensive but swift skate across her life.
Mavis! is slightly hamstrung by the sheer amount of information it tries to convey. There’s no opportunity to explore the strands that beckon so promisingly, only to be cast aside for the next episode in a packed life. Her relationship with Pops is the one exception, and that arrives late in the day. Even with these problems, Edwards’ has crafted an entertaining dash through Mavis’ life, and by putting her centre stage, allows space for this consummate performer to elevate the documentary.
Mavis! is available on HBO Go and HBO Now.