Mavis! Review

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A documentary profile of Mavis Staples exploring the influential mix of gospel, blues and R&B pioneered by The Staples Singers, as well as the role the band played in the Civil Rights movement.


The Staples Singers are one of American music's best-kept secrets. Comprising Roebuck 'Pops' Staples and combinations of his children Mavis, Pervis, Cleotha and Yvonne, they started out as a Chicago gospel combo before adding some blues and folk to voice their support for Martin Luther King in the early 1960s. But it wasn't until they mixed in a little R&B and signed with the legendary Stax Records that they started to top the charts with hits like I'll Take You There, Respect Yourself and Let's Do It Again.

This works best as a musical history lesson rather than vibrant documentary.

As Mavis is at pains to point out, Pops shaped the family's musical destiny and she was as keen to release his last recordings as she was to revive her own solo fortunes after he died in 2000. But while Mavis is happy to extol her father's virtues, awed debutant director Jessica Edwards allows her to avoid discussion of her mother and other aspects of her private life, beyond a coy admission that she might have smooched Bob Dylan. Moreover, Edwards struggles to capture the dynamism of the seventysomething's live performances in concert clips that pale beside the thrilling archive footage, demonstrating that Mavis Staples has one of the best voices in modern music.

Yet, while she might have lingered longer on Mavis's vocal potency, Edwards lines up an impressive array of talking heads to assess the impact of '60s message songs and recall Staples's more recent collaborations with Prince and Jeff Tweedy. She also includes a touching visit to the ailing Levon Helm and a clip from a tearful 2011 Grammy acceptance speech. But this works best as a musical history lesson rather than vibrant documentary.

Brimful of glorious sounds, this affectionate fan letter says as much about Pops Staples's artistic and political evolution as it does about his devoted daughter, one of the all-time greats.