One of the happy side effects of the past decade’s documentary boom—which has seen every topic, big and small, from bottled water to Sea World to Indonesian genocide, receive the doc treatment—is that we have become quite good at documenting our aging musical legends before they pass on to another plane. In recent years, artists like Levon Helm, Lemmy Kilmister, Ginger Baker, Glen Campbell, and Keith Richards have been captured in adulatory docs profiling the twilight of their lives. If these movies are rarely adventurous or probing, they nevertheless serve a vital function in capturing some of our most significant artists while they are still alive and kicking.
And, as director Jessica Edwards’ bouncy, jubilant “Mavis!” proves, few musicians in their seventies are as alive or as kicking as Mavis Staples. “Mavis!” tracks Staples’ six-decade career sensitively and with great affection, but its greatest joy is in simply watching Staples, who gets around with a cane (which she also brings on stage and uses as something of a prop) still in fine voice, performing with all the energy and exuberance of a much younger woman. Life beats us all down, and Staples in particular has suffered some setbacks and disappointments in her long career, but when the music starts, she’s still got it. Her massive, deep-toned, viscerally powerful voice is still there. And there’s something inspiring about that.
Staples started singing gospel with her father and siblings, who soon started touring as The Staple Singers. Mavis’s father, Pops, formed combined finger-picked electric guitar with old-fashioned religious music, forging a distinctive synthesis of blue and gospel that was the perfect vehicle for Mavis’s earthy, soulful voice. In the ‘60s, the Stapleses alienated some gospel diehards by recording “message” songs, such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and later moving into a purely popular form after signing to Stax Records, a period which produced their biggest hit, “I’ll Take You There.” Mavis made a few efforts to make it as a solo artist, including an ill-fated collaboration with Prince in the ‘80s, but she never quite made it. But she kept singing, and she still performs. And now, in her seventies, Mavis is making some of her most popular music with the help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
Edwards focuses heavily on Mavis’s career, giving relatively little attention to her personal life. “Mavis!” tiptoes around Mavis’s personal details, including an ex-husband who is scarcely mentioned, almost as if Edwards, awed in the presence of this great artist, was perhaps afraid to probe too deeply. The film naturally focuses on Mavis’s bond with her sister and father, but even here Edwards never seems to establish much intimacy. Only in the film’s last scene, a touching moment in which Mavis, weeping, sings along to a recording of her deceased father, do we seem to really share an intimacy with Mavis.
“Mavis!” also gives relatively short shrift to the political conscience of Mavis and her family. We learn that the Staples Singers recorded a number of “freedom” songs, which Mavis continues to perform, and that Pops met Martin Luther King, Jr., and was inspired by his message. But we learn little about the way racism has personally touched Mavis’s life. And a potentially interesting topic about how Mavis has slowly moved from performing for mostly black audiences in the ‘60s and ‘70s to mostly white audiences today is left on the table.
Still, “Mavis!” earns its exclamation point with numerous performance clips, a great soundtrack, and the presence of Mavis herself. If the film is at times perfunctory, simply being in the presence of Mavis Staples for 80 minutes is more than enough.