Mavis! DVD Review

DVD Review by Wal Reid

The Premise
MAVIS! is the first documentary on gospel/soul music legend and civil rights icon Mavis Staples and her family group, The Staple Singers. From the freedom songs of the ’60s and hits like “I’ll Take You There" in the ’70s, to funked-up collaborations with Prince and her recent albums with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Mavis has stayed true to her roots, kept her family close, and inspired millions along the way. Featuring powerful live performances, rare archival footage, and conversations with friends and contemporaries including Bob Dylan, Prince, Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm, Jeff Tweedy, Chuck D, and more, MAVIS! reveals the struggles, successes, and intimate stories of her journey. At 75, she's making the most vital music of her career, winning Grammy awards, and reaching a new generation of fans. Her message of love and equality is needed now more than ever.

The Review
I hadn’t realised Gospel singer Mavis Staples had such a colourful life, let alone was still alive. Not exactly my first choice in choosing a film but really glad I managed to shrug off any ‘doubting Thomas” in me, the film delivering a powerful watch, I was pleasantly surprised and totally engaged throughout, no mean feat after just finishing work either.

If you’re a fan of biopics or like to get a doco fix, then Mavis is for you and one of last year’s NZIFF picks. Just a quick synopsis, Staples was born in Chicago in 1939. She began her career with her, singing locally at churches and appearing on a weekly radio show, the Staples scored a hit in 1956 with "Uncloudy Day", her lush low register voice was noted as a person of a more ‘mature age’ not one attributed to a then teenager.

The Staple Singers took their music on the road. Led by family patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples on guitar and including the voices of Mavis and her siblings Cleotha, Yvonne, and Purvis, the Staples were called "God's Greatest Hit makers" their music played everywhere on the radio and southern gospel circuit in the 50s.

Staples influence on the music world and artists through her ubiquitous music genre will surprise.  From turning down a marriage proposal from Bob Dylan (he was chasing her hard out) to Music wunderkind Prince helping to revive her flagging career to her latest musical endeavours with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy who produced her Grammy award winning album You Are Not Alone.

The scenes with her Tweedy and his Son Spencer are warm, their relationship explored further and his integral part in helping Staples release her father’s album of unfinished tracks released last year.

It’s an honest look at one of Gospel’s greats, its candid in presentation and they are lots of interviews with artists interspersed to keep the film bouncing along without losing momentum. Musicians Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Bonnie Raitt & Bob Dylan are interviewed at length providing inspiration they got from listening to her music, it’s an ode to a singer who has influenced more people than has been given recognition. I love the way Staples is portrayed in this film, larger than life, always reflective, and always ready with a story to tell. Her rehearsals with her band are cinematic recordings of her music a mix of old and new including performances of her recent concerts that will appease fans.

Her intimate tales of her life onstage and off are exposed, freedom songs inspired by Martin Luther King Jr in the 60s, to her chart-busting hits in the 70s and 80s and her recent album One True Vine, nothing is left to speculation, not even her alleged affair with Bob Dylan.

The Verdict
Her voice is nowhere near the powerhouse it once was, but if anyone asked me who I would have over for dinner, Mavis Staples would be at the top of my list. Go see one of this year’s most compelling documentaries, it won’t help you sing better but it will be the best 2 hours you’ll ever spend at the movies.  

The Trailer

The Info
DVD Releases: 13th July 2016
Rating: TBC
Duration: 81 minutes 
Genre:  Documentary
Starring: Mavis Staples, Bob Dylan, Prince, Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm, Jeff Tweedy, Chuck D
Director: Jessica Edwards (Feature Debut)

The Extras
The first time I saw Mavis Staples, it had been raining all day in New York City. She was scheduled to perform that evening at an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, and I wondered if the show would be cancelled. But the rain cleared just before show time, and I sat on a soggy picnic blanket with friends and watched as this amazing woman and her band came on stage. Her voice reverberated through the trees as she sang, testified, preached, moaned, wailed and gave everything she had. The entire audience, young and old, was brought to its feet, and we all left the concert inspired and energized.

Jessica Edwards - Director
When I got home that night, I wanted to know everything I could about Mavis and her family, the Staple Singers. My search for a documentary about her life proved unsuccessful, and I couldn’t believe that no one had documented the lasting impact of the Staple Singers’ music. So I set out to make that film myself. I delved deep into Mavis’s story, which spans seven decades and as many musical genres. I was blown away by the incredible voice that was belting out gospel hits at age 13. I was moved by her freedom songs of the ’60s, and by her stories of touring the segregated south with Martin Luther King. I was enamored with her amazing style and groove in the soul-filled ’70s. I discovered that she and Prince had spent years recording together, and that she’d had a youthful romance with Bob Dylan. What a history! But as I started shooting the film and we began putting it together, I kept coming back to that night in the park, and how Mavis’s story isn’t about the past, it’s happening now. The fact that she is 75 years old and is still a vital and important artist, and not just out there performing as an oldies act, informed the way we made the film. I didn’t want the film to feel ‘historical’ even though we cover so much of Mavis’s history, and with it, the history of American music. So I felt it was important to include as much contemporary footage as possible, both of Mavis and the locations of her stories.

The biggest challenge was how to capture a career that spans over 60 years in one film, which is an impossible task. Inevitably some of Mavis’s story needed to be left for viewers to discover on their own. But what was important to me was to try to celebrate the importance of her legacy and share some of the inspiration, passion and love that she’s instilled in me through her music and her life.

Jessica Edwards / New York, March 2015