By: Addison Wylie
The music in Mavis! wins us over in a flash. I wouldn’t be surprised if filmmaker Jessica Edwards was actually tempted early on to make a straight concert film instead of a biographical documentary. Mavis! is much more than the gospel music that enraptured listeners; including musicians Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D, Bob Dylan, and recent collaborator Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco). The film is about Mavis Staples, the legendary singer behind a voice that could belt high notes and troll along the deepest of scales.
Edwards’ documentary – which has had the honour of being picked up by HBO – is strong out of the gate. Staples is seen gathering the attention of a younger crowd while she performs her impressive vocal range. It’s imperative to the filmmaker to establish Mavis’ modern effect, and how she still has the ability to stun. The film’s shining style also matches the musician’s liveliness.
When the film starts to enter Staples’ musical past, Mavis! slips into a typical form most documentaries follow. However, much of the formula is raised above its conventions by Mavis’ optimistic initiative and elatedness, complimentary interviews, a personal view at the relationship between Staples and her musically inclined father, and – of course – the film’s thrilling performances. Above all, the documentarian owes a lot of gratitude to biographer Greg Kot, whose charismatic expertise about the Staples Singers helps guide the viewer through Mavis’ legacy.
Mavis Staples can leave audiences breathless. Jessica Edwards’ Mavis! will do the same to movie goers.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie