Mavis’ voice isn’t Sunday morning. It’s not easy like a spring breeze or a walk in the park at sunset. Mavis’ voice is hearty, robust, sometimes scratchy and always potent, and while our parents may know of the importance and musical necessity it is to have The Staple Singers in their iTunes playlist, Jessica Edwards HBO documentary Mavis! introduces the spunky and charming singer to the Snapchat generation, proving she had keys way before Khaled.
Mavis! tells the story of the humble beginnings of the Staple Singers family band led by Roebuck “Pops” Staples with Mavis as the lead. Pops guitar playing was a mixture of gospel and blues, which at the time was musically frowned upon. The family began singing in church and started making a name for themselves, which led to other gigs at churches across the south. After a brief meeting with a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Pops returned to the group and said “If he can preach it, we can sing it,” which later spawned the band’s first freedom song, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” and ushered the group into the Civil Right’s movement.
With commentary from Chuck D, Bonnie Raitt, co-owner of Stax Records Al Bell and the late Julian Bond, director Jessica Edwards supplements Mavis’ greatness not only with footage of the group’s early days on tour, but through fellow musicians who site Mavis’ as the powerhouse vocalist she is.
“I love and respected Aretha, I still do, but she was no Mavis Staples,” Bell said.
While the early sounds of the Staple Singers brought many who attended the documentary’s early screening back to simpler times, it’s Mavis’ authentic charm and hilarity that keeps the film close to your heart. With her loyal sister Yvonne by her side, Mavis simply delights without even trying. Whether it be unabashedly fixing her honey blond wig while the cameras rolled, talking about smooching Bob Dylan in her younger days, or cuttin’ a rug with her new knees while on stage back home in Chicago, Mavis doesn’t know how to be anything other than Mavis.
“I’m not as frisky as I used to be, although I feel like it,” she says with a mischievous grin.
And then it happened.
The boom of the drums. The recognizable guitar rift, and her deep, voice came through as Edwards documents the first time Mavis performed “I’ll Take You There.” The Staple Singers had veered off from their traditional Gospel roots, and received the ire from the church community disappointed with their secular ways, but let Mavis tell it, once the song skyrocketed to number one, everyone couldn’t resist.
“The church people were dancing to it, they weren’t foolin’ me.” Mavis said.
Mavis! is feel good, like Christmas morning feel good. On a lousy Monday with an entire week of work ahead of you, on an extra day of the year no less, Mavis’s smile, good heart and soul-stirring voice is the boost you need to make it to Friday. Yeah, Mavis takes you there, and at 71 year old, it doesn’t look like she has any plans to stop anytime soon.
MAVIS! debuts Monday, Feb. 29, exclusively on HBO.