Mavis! April 4, 2016
There is a moment near the end of Mavis!, an excellent music documentary, that is particularly moving. The film’s subject, the matchless soul singer Mavis Staples, is sitting with Jeff Tweedy, the frontman of the rock band Wilco. Loved ones are intermingling in the background. Staples, seventy-five and as vibrant as ever, is about to hear something she’s been clamoring to for years — her late father’s first LP, which was never released as its production coincided with his passing. Staples’s friendship with Tweedy, who brought on her career renaissance by producing her acclaimed 2010 album You Are Not Alone, has brought on much artistic success. As a gift to one of his idols (their relationship is close enough for Staples to consider Tweedy’s son to be her grandchild), he has doctored the remnants of Pops Staples’s final work. The result brings her to tears. “I miss him so much,” she sighs between a rough mixture of sobs and smiles.
This scene makes for something of an epitomization of Mavis Staples, an R&B talent who easily could have gone off the rails during her sixty-year career, but instead remained, and still remains, a down-to-earth, consistently grateful, legend kept together by strong familial ties (she preferred to work with her family band, The Staples Singers, to performing solo) and a genuine respect for her peers.
Much of her life has been mythologized. She had a relationship with Bob Dylan in her youth. One of her closest friends is Bonnie Raitt. In the late 1980s, Prince sought her out just so he could produce music with her. But Staples never lets the fact that she’s a cult legend, a gospel icon, get to her head — she’s a woman doing what she loves, and, during Mavis!, she never seems to be anyone other than a kindly everywoman appreciative of what her life has had to offer her. So many stars let past prosperities or waning cultural relevance harm their present existence. Staples couldn’t care less; she wants to sing, and retiring, despite being a doable possibility, sounds hellacious.
And we adore her for it. Mavis! is the riveting documentary that it is because we’re both interested in Staples the Singer and Staples the Person. Stories from her past abound and dazzle us, but terrific too is watching her interact with those closest to her — a mutual love is there and palpable. The more we get to know Staples in quieter moments, the aforementioned sequence with Tweedy a fitting example, the better the documentary becomes, its examinations of her personal life coated with affectionate humility.
Mavis! premiered on HBO and is directed by Jessica Edwards, and is compendious and all around irresistible (the musical sequences are extraneously heart-stopping). It feels like something of an upbeat counterpart to the downers of last year’s Amy and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. It is important to cherish a subject more happy-go-lucky than destructive, anyway. B+