One documentary that I was really looking forward to at SXSW this year was Mavis!, the music doc on the legendary rhythm and blues/gospel musician who, along with her group the Staples Singers, helped shape the civil rights movement in the 60’s as well as the culture into the 70’s. This was the world premiere of the doc, with the woman herself being in attendance at the screening (which she said was her first time watching the film). Here’s the review of Mavis!
Directed by Jessica Edwards (this is her first feature), she chronicles the story of Mavis Staples and how she along with her family of The Staples Singers become one of the most influential R&B groups of the 20th century. It goes into detail from everything with Dr. King taking a liking to the group, to when the Staples Singers made their appearance in The Last Waltz (that was the first time I had ever seen or heard of Mavis Staples was when I saw that film), to when Mavis began working with Prince and then Jeff Tweedy to release the final recordings by her father, Pop Staples.
If you’re going into this film for a dark examination into the psyche of an artist, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But Mavis! plays similar in tone to the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, where this is a very heartwarming and uplifting documentary on one of the most influential figures in American music. Ms. Edwards follows Mavis as she tours with her band and her sister from city to city, where Mavis returns to Chicago and then performing at the Newport Music Festival with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco and then just Mavis herself. What I find fascinating about Mavis Staples is that throughout all the years that she’s been performing (which is about six decades of performing at this point) is that there is never a sign of an ego or entitlement with the woman. She seems like everyday people, which she acknowledges this point in the middle of the documentary.
We also get some small but memorable concert performances in the film to prove that Ms. Staples still has it after all these years (after the screening, Mavis Staples proved to the folks in the audience after the screening that she’s still got it and blew the house down with a quick performance after the film). There was one sequence in the film that made me start geeking out big time, even though it was a very tiny part of the film. It was a sequence where Mavis and her group took a trip up to Woodstock to Levon Helm’s Studio/home. Helm was, of course, the late singer/drummer from The Band, one of my all time favorite bands and played with the Staples Singers in The Last Waltz, which I just mentioned earlier (It’s still my favorite documentary of all time). It’s a small part in the film where Staples and Mr. Helm are sitting around and singing Gospel tunes, but you could tell that this sequence was shot shortly before Levon passed away from his longtime battle with cancer in 2012.
You also get some talking head interviews with Staples herself, several Civil Right activists, and musicians who have been inspired by Staples. Mavis! doesn’t break any new ground in how this story is presented or told, but what it does is that it finally gets the story of Mavis Staples on the big screen, which is a story that will inspire countless people who will be introduced to Ms. Staples through this film. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mavis! has success similar to what 20 Feet from Stardom did, as the crowd that I saw the film with fell in love with this film, and if you love uplifting docs like this, you will to.