This fawning folk music doc leaves no punch un-pulled
FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
RPL Film Theatre
The surest way to make a successful documentary is to have a subject worthy of attention. Mavis! has an uninspired traditional format and is gentle to a fault, yet it holds your gaze on the strength of soul pioneer Mavis Staples.
The cornerstone of the Staple Singers is very much active at 76 and is more consistent than her contemporary, Aretha Franklin. In Mavis! we find out, among other revelations, that not only was Staples an active participant of the Civil Rights movement (alongside her father she wrote freedom songs like “Why Am I Treated So Bad”), she was also a proto-feminist who never thought twice about putting her career ahead of forming a family.
Staples’ long list of collaborators includes Curtis Mayfield and Prince, yet she has a particular kinship with folk music. Alongside Bob Dylan (who was sweet on her), she brought soul to the masses, and her most recent LP One True Vine — which rescued old recordings with Pops Staples — was produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
Directed by first-time feature director Jessica Edwards, Mavis! is suspiciously free of conflict. As portrayed in the film, people join and leave the Staple Singers as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and the transition from one genre to another didn’t cause any tension within the band. I’ve watched too many episodes of Behind the Music to believe that.
The real value of the film lies in its historical aspect. Mavis Staples embodies the transformation of gospel into soul and R&B. Since the 1950s, every generation claims to have “discovered” her. The doc benefits from fantastic archival footage including the Pops Staples/Martin Luther King connection and Staples’ studio sessions with Prince. Also, the singer is quite winning and it’s very easy to empathize with her. Showing some teeth would have made this a better documentary though.