Wednesday evening I had the honor of attending a preview of the new HBO documentary Mavis! about the life of legendary singer Mavis Staples. If I had paid, I’d tell you that it was quite worth the price of admission and I’d pull out my wallet and pay some more if asked to. The documentary follows Mavis through her life as the lead singer of the Staple Singers and her solo career (50’s – now). Her raspy, soulful voice and genuine, bubbly personality comes through in every song and interview. Her love for music, performing and the people she performs for is evident. It wasn’t the rags to riches stories we hear so often. No, Mavis never told any tales of poverty but it doesn’t matter. It’s evident that the journey wasn’t easy. It was a lot of hard work. What you do see is a story of a father’s love, dedication to family and a desire to make good music that could appeal to people of all walks of life. People love them. The Staples Singers were the first gospel group to sell a million copies of a record.
It was evident that the head of the family , Roebuck “Pops” Staples, was the Joe Jackson of his time. He realized that he and his children, Cleotha, Purvis, Mavis and Yvonne, had an exceptional talent that could enable them to earn a good living while singing praises to God. What began as a gospel career ended up having crossover appeal that landed them among the company of folk singers, blues singers, country singers and rock singers.
Throughout the documentary, Mavis shares her personal stories and intimate thoughts in her own words. It features powerful live performances, rare archival footage, and conversations with friends and contemporaries including Bob Dylan, Prince, Bonnie Raitt,Levon Helm, Jeff Tweedy, and Chuck D. Mavis’s management, producers backup singers and band members have their say as well. I loved the music! I was introduced to songs I had never heard like “UnCloudy Day” and songs I like but don’t hear often. “I’ll Take You There,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me), ” “Let’s Do It Again” had me moving in my theater seat. The Staples Singers’s support of civil rights through their music made me want to go home and try to write a song to reflect the pain and struggles of my generation and the Black Lives Matter movement. Although, I believe “Respect Yourself” could easily be remixed and reincarnated because the message is still relevant. I especially enjoyed the segment that told about the height of their career, in the 70’s, when they were signed to STAX Records, which happens to be in my hometown of Memphis, TN. It’s always good seeing Al Bell represent our own historical powerhouse of hits.
My hat is off to the director, Jessica Edwards. She did a beautiful job of telling the story of a woman whose singing career spans over 50 years and at the age of 75, Mavis and her baby sister, Yvonne, who serves as one of her backup singers, are still touring and singing. This documentary did exactly what good music is supposed to do—make you feel a range of emotions. I smiled, I laughed and I cried but most of all I left the theater feeling good and extremely proud of the Staple Singers but especially Pops and Mavis.
Mavis! airs on HBO Tuesday, February 29th 9pm ET/8pm CT. Check out the trailer
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