A documentary by Jessica Edwards. Rating unavailable.
If you don’t know Mavis Staples, or can only hum a few bars of the (confusingly named) Staple Singers’ deep catalogue, Mavis! will change that right quick.
Always the most visible Staple(s), the soulful contralto—front and centre on enduring hits like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There”—is having a phenomenal career resurgence at 76, and this uplifting doc helps. It doesn’t really tackle why her solo career never took off before. And first-time feature-maker Jessica Edwards shows scant interest in Mavis’s private life, even regarding her singing siblings. But it does convey the intense creative relationship with her deceptively gentle father, guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the tremolo-tinged guitarist who held the family band together until his death in 2000.
This gospel outfit was the first (beating out Peter, Paul and Mary) to cover Bob Dylan, so enamoured of the Staples sound—especially their breakthrough hit, “Uncloudy Day”—and of young Mavis’s disarming dimples, he shyly asked her to marry him. (This was when they were both on the folk-festival circuit, alongside people like Pete Seeger, Odetta, and Joan Baez.) She declined, but they had a fairly chaste romance.
Here, a relaxed and still-admiring Dylan joins Bonnie Raitt, Marty Stuart, Prince, the late Levon Helm, and others to talk about her wide-ranging influence. (Notably absent is Aretha Franklin, apparently most threatened by Mavis out of all her contemporaries.)
Enthusiastically on hand is Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the fellow Chicagoan who helped oversee her startling comeback. Exciting new material, sometimes in wonderfully unpolished form, alternates with old performance footage (including clips from Wattstax and The Last Waltz), all imbued with inspiring vitality. Don’t hesitate; come go with her!