There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Mavis!, which is streaming over on HBO.
At some point relatively early on in Jessica Edwards’ energetic, insightful, and ultimately inspiring documentary, Mavis!, it is pointed out that Mavis Staples and the group the Staple Singers "touched on seven different eras of music and were relevant in all of them." Now, that’s the sort of hyperbole that is easy to write off, but if anything, Mavis! takes pains to exemplify the ever-present humility of its subject. Even at a tight 80 minutes, the film manages to almost effortlessly squeeze in more history and sheer personality than other documentaries that are twice as long. "We're coming here this evening to bring you some joy, happiness, inspiration, and some positive vibrations," Mavis announces from the stage early on, and the rest of the film more than lives up to that lofty mission statement.
Mavis got her start in 1950 when her father, "Pops," enlisted her, barely out of elementary school, as a gospel singer along with her sisters Cleotha and Pervis. Even early on, Mavis was the standout of the bunch, with a voice that Bonnie Raitt describes as "sensual without being salacious.” Mavis herself laughingly recounts that people who heard early recordings of the group would swear to her "that has gotta be a man or a big fat woman, not no thirteen year old girl..." Mavis’s career, as a member of the Staple Singers and as a solo artist, carries on to this day. The group graced the 1964 Newport Folk Festival stage, she was proposed to by Bob Dylan (“we may have smooched...” she admits), they sang what would become one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal favorite songs (“Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?,” about the Little Rock Nine), in 1972 they brought the house down at Wattstax, they performed on stage with the Band for their Last Waltz show, Mavis was hand selected by Prince as an artist he wanted to produce... the list of her personal and professional accomplishments, with the group and as a solo artist, stretches on and on, criss-crossing folk, soul, gospel, country, and rock, painting her as a truly unique living legend and the best part: she’s not done.
With nearly seven decades under her belt as a performer, it’s tempting to call Mavis a “survivor” of the music industry. There are numerous moments where her career was in danger of stalling out for whatever reason, and the film makes no bones about those times, but there never seems to be a single moment that Mavis despaired. We have a complicated view of child stars these days, but in telling the story of the Staple Singers and Mavis especially, Mavis! paints a picture of not only a profoundly well-adjusted person and performer, but a woman who truly lives to be on stage, reaching out to touch the lives of her audience on a one-to-one basis, and she’s thankful for the opportunity.
At every turn, the filmmakers behind Mavis! go to great lengths to highlight the hands up that she got and the lucky breaks that led to her successes. This isn’t at all to downplay her abilities as an artist, but ultimately feels like a perfect distillation of her personality. The music industry that you see here is full of friendly faces that look out for each other. There’s a good chunk of the film that details the ways that Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has not only made a point of helping her late-period career onwards, producing Mavis’s albums You Are Not Alone, and One True Vine, but that he’s also a major player in the efforts to complete Pops Staples’ “lost” 1998 album Don't Lose This. It’s a powerful moment to watch her tear up in the legendary Wilco loft listening back to the songs with Tweedy.
With most stories you need some sort of drama to pull things along. With Mavis! there is next to none of that, and the film is so much better off for it. Jessica Edwards and her crew could have fit the film to the “Behind the Music” model relatively easily, but instead we find an artist that has been happily making her music her way for decades and simply succeeding on raw talent and an almost blindingly positive outlook on her life and her craft.