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Mavis! (PG)

One of my fondest memories of the summer of 2011 is of not just seeing Mavis Staples in concert headlining the Greenbelt festival, but of actually being on the same stage as her – off to one side, from where I play records to keep the crowd entertained in between bands.

It’s a memory that came back to me several times as I watched one of the most joyous music documentaries I’ve seen in a long while.

In 80 minutes, director Jessica Edwards gives us a potted history of not just Mavis' career both with and without her dad and siblings, but also of the Civil Rights movement, as well as of gospel and blues music and their relationship with America’s folk scene.

Mavis grew up in Chicago, at a time when the city was a breeding ground for music legends (Curtis Mayfield being just one of many the family hung out with when they were kids). Her dad, Roebuck (aka “Pops”) was a big admirer of Martin Luther King, and the feeling was mutual. The Staples family visited King’s church several times, and Martin’s message of freedom became a big influence on the songs Pops wrote for his children to sing.

Several of Mavis’ friends and collaborators were interviewed for the film, including Bob Dylan, with whom Mavis had a brief romance (he proposed, she said no); Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D (activist and founder member of the rap group Public Enemy) and Jeff Tweedy from the band Wilco, who produced Mavis’ last two albums and has been working on a posthumous Pops Staples album. The scene in which Mavis is in Jeff’s studio listening to her dad sing is simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking.

Mavis! is more than just a documentary; it’s a tribute. To faith, to family, to friendship, to freedom – and, of course, to great music (sorry I don’t have word that begins with F for that last one).

George Luke

(Editor's note: video clip above features Mavis Staples singing The Staple Singers' hit I'll Be There at The White House in 2013)

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