This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 1st May 2016
Mavis! is a warm-hearted documentary about the shining star of the Staples Singers, the family troupe who delivered gospel music out from its niche in the churches and into mainstream pop culture during the 1960s and 1970s. The group’s leading lady at a young age, today the soul legend continues to forge a solo career in her mid-70s.
Principally, Mavis! is a solid aural history of gospel-soul music and its significance to the Civil Rights movement – Mavis’ father got involved with Dr King’s world-changing message, and the seemingly eternally cheery quartet (comprising father, brother and two sisters) played concerts, TV appearances and produced records as if it were a bonafide calling. But Mavis Staples herself has proved to be inspirational to countless musicians over the past several decades, and talking heads interviews with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and anecdotes about her involvement with Bob Dylan and Prince go some way to fleshing out the down-to-earth star’s biography.
Interspersed with extended concert footage of 75-year old Mavis which initially thrills but soon feels repetitive, the film doesn’t push any boundaries in terms of either personal content (an ill-fated marriage is covered in one throwaway comment) or professional insights. Mavis! may not inspire many new listeners, but it should satisfy the adoring fans and musicologists.